Monday 17 June 2019

The Magic Flute: Mozart's most popular opera is given an Irish twist

The King And I Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin Until June 1

High note: Soprano Anna Devin brings plenty of anguish to her role. Photo by Pat Redmond
High note: Soprano Anna Devin brings plenty of anguish to her role. Photo by Pat Redmond

Katy Hayes

Irish National Opera, in its second year of programming, brings Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most popular opera to Irish audiences, its German libretto by Emanuel Schikander sung with English surtitles. The Magic Flute is often people's first experience of opera; its fairytale ambience and comical strain make it suitable for younger audiences, while its virtuosic singing parts and musical inventiveness satisfy the most demanding of elders.

It is essentially a fairytale. The Queen of the Night persuades Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina who has been kidnapped by the high priest Sarastro. Tamino sets off to accomplish this but must first pass through a number of trials.

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The first disappointment is that there is no serpent attacking Tamino in Act 1. Thus, the next piece of action makes no sense, as Tamino befriends Papageno in gratitude for fighting off the serpent, which doesn't exist. Tenor Nick Pritchard is initially too low-status for Prince Tamino; his costume in Act 1 appears designed for a comic character. He grows in presence throughout the evening, but he has started very much on the back foot.

Soprano Anna Devin brings plenty of anguish to Pamina, but the shifts in the production from humour to seriousness are awkwardly handled. Gavan Ring is the star of the show with his deliciously comic baritone performance as Papageno. The three boy sopranos, sung with utter sweetness by Nicholas O'Neill, Seán Hughes and Oran Murphy, are an enduringly delightful element.

Set designer Ciaran Bagnall creates a beautiful magical forest in Act 1, but the design solution for the temple is less coherent. It is a big-house library, with a circular ceiling to allow for action on two levels; spatially clever but lacking conceptual logic.

Peter Whelan conducts the Irish Chamber Orchestra, catching the lovely musicality of Mozart's score but also foregrounding the more playful elements - the flute and "magic bells" - with a charming delicacy.

Director Caroline Staunton Irishes the story up a bit, with Katie Davenport's costumes having Papageno and the boy sopranos dressed up like Wren Boys. Pamina is dressed as the Colleen Bawn in the early scenes and Sorastro initially wears a red coat, signalling English settler in an Irish big-house. But it is difficult to wrestle The Magic Flute into a political statement. Its unruly fairytale element resists. Staunton's Irishisms remain only gestures, and never really amount to a political take, and therefore distract.

The magic of Mozart's music triumphs, nonetheless.


Plenty of happy tunes for whistling

The King And I Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin Until June 1

Katy Hayes

Schoolteacher Anna Leonownes is a terrific character. In 1951, when Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical premièred, she would have been an early voice in the emerging campaign for women's rights. Genteel to the bone, and got up in fancy crinoline dresses, her demanding of professional respect as well as her defence of the rights of the women of the harem were a proto-feminist assertion made from the centre of that most influential of cultural products, the Broadway musical.

Almost 70 years later, the character of Anna still feels fresh. This Lincoln Centre Theatre's touring show is a lavish production with brilliantly brocaded costumes, gliding palatial sets, and terrific ensemble work. The ballet in Act 2, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a highlight. Annalene Beechey is golden-voiced as Anna. Jose Llana brings extra layers of humour to the King of Siam. Kamm Kunaree plucks heartstrings as the slave-girl Tuptim.

Director Bartlett Sher is alert to the post-colonial implications of this story and the material about European interference in Asia is given prominence. But most emphasis goes on the classic songs, all now firmly embedded in popular consciousness. Plenty of happy tunes for whistling.

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