A thoroughly entertaining shot of Mozartian optimism: Mid Wales Opera's Magic Flute reviewed by Richard Bratby: The Spectator
The Magic Flute
Mid Wales Opera, touring until 4 May
The backdrop is a hexagonal matrix, glowing in neon blue. Mist billows from the wings, and as a figure in a pink gas mask huddles in the foreground, a Victorian funeral party marches slowly across the stage. ‘Where am I?’ asks Tamino in the first scene of The Magic Flute and in Richard Studer’s new production for Mid Wales Opera, the answer seems to be the faintly eerie world of 1970s British sci-fi – an episode of Sapphire and Steel perhaps, or Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. Well, why not? Mozart and Schikaneder – whose libretto invokes Egyptian gods while specifying that Tamino should wear ‘Japanese hunting costume’ – clearly weren’t too fussed. I’ve seenThe Magic Flute staged as a world war one drama, a manga cartoon and a homage to Magritte. It works every time.
No, what’s most surprising here is that this production exists at all. In 2015 Mid Wales Opera – which had been touring small venues in both Wales and England since 1988 – ran into funding difficulties and went ominously quiet. That, it seemed, was that. MWO’s recent appointment of Studer and the conductor Jonathan Lyness as a new artistic leadership was the company’s first real vital sign in some time. These two have form, including a particularly raw and passionate Jenufa at Longborough last summer. And by the look of their new Flute, which opened on Friday night in Newtown, Mid Wales Opera isn’t merely off life-support: it’s back in the game and punching straight into the same league as English Touring Opera, a company whose only artistic compromises relate to the size of its venues.
The casting’s the key. These are youngish singers, but they all have credible CVs, and three performances would stand out in any production: Sion Goronwy’s imposing and sonorous Sarastro, Galina Averina’s vulnerable, eloquently-sung Pamina and – as the Queen of the Night – Samantha Hay, who’s sung this role for ETO and Welsh National Opera, and whose interpretation only seems to grow in haughty brilliance. William Wallace (Tamino) and Frederick Long (Papageno) had an enjoyably blokish comic rapport. Crucially, since there are no surtitles, they all enunciate the English text clearly and naturally. There’s no chorus either, but Lyness conducts his ten-piece orchestra with zest and intense expression – and for good measure, plays Papageno’s glockenspiel too, as Mozart himself did in 1791.
As for that production: thanks to some deft lighting, it doesn’t look bad, and Studer’s designs clearly delineate who’s on whose side (Monostatos in black feathers as a kind of anti-Papageno was a neat touch). The theatre was full, the laughter frequent and at the transcendent moment when Pamina steps forward to share Tamino’s ordeals and Mozart’s score brims over with dignity and compassion, I felt that essential, unmistakable pricking behind the eyes. If you’re within striking distance of Bangor, Aberystwyth, Pontardawe or Newport, go and see it. You won’t just receive a thoroughly entertaining shot of Mozartian optimism – you’ll be doing something positive for the future of British opera.
SMALL STAGES - a new idea for touring chamber opera
Devised by the new artistic team behind MWO, the Small Stages programme is designed to serve communities that MWO’s Main-Stage performances cannot reach, engaging and developing audiences for opera and keeping unusual repertoire alive and well across Wales.
The pilot tour features a newly created chamber version of William Walton’s comedy classic The Bear in November 2017 with three rural community hall performances close to MWO’s home venue of Hafren in Newtown before taking to the road for a further 12 performances.
Directed and designed by MWO’s Artistic Director Richard Studer, The Bear is performed by three singers and five musicians with no conductor, in a new performing edition by MWO’s Music Director Jonathan Lyness with permission from Oxford University Press and the William Walton Trust.
Written in 1967 and celebrating it’s 50th anniversary next year The Bear combines entertainment, comedy, parody and great tunes.
Based on Anton Chekhov’s play of the same name the opera tells the tale of a widow, Mme Popova, unendingly mourning the death of her husband until the arrival of the rough-hewn yet charismatic land agent, Smirnov (the “bear” of the title) demanding payment of debts. Passions run high and their sparring culminates in a duel during which the two appear to have fallen unexpectedly in love.
The Bear lasts one hour and is sung in English. Each performance will conclude with an informal presentation of operatic excerpts performed by both musicians and singers, tailor-made for each venue, with refreshments and the opportunity for informal discussion and chat with the performers.
MWO’s SMALL STAGES 2017 tour of The Bear is generously supported by The Foyle Foundation and The Ashley Family Foundation.
Jonathan Lyness says: “The Bear is a brilliant introduction for audiences new to opera and a fabulous opportunity for all music lovers to hear Walton’s great comedy classic; in its fiftieth anniversary year these chamber-scale performances are designed to have the widest possible appeal.”
Richard Studer writes: "What is exciting about this project is working with community venues to present professional opera in areas under represented by the traditional touring model at an accessible price (typically under £10) but also to give an opportunity for performers and audience to engage directly with each other in informal settings celebrating some of the great and sometimes neglected 20th century comic repertoire."
NEW SEASON ANNOUNCED
Mid Wales Opera are delighted to be back on the road again with not one but two tours planned for Spring 2017.
MWO’s plans, unveiled at the MWO Friends’ Gala concert in the stunning Music Room at Gregynog Hall in the heart of Mid Wales, include the first professional performances in Wales of Handel’s baroque gem Semele as well as a new production of Mozart’s popular classic The Magic Flute.
The widely anticipated first production by MWO’s new artistic team - director/designer Richard Studer and conductor Jonathan Lyness - launches a new era in the company’s history and promises to astonish audiences, both young and old, with the wonders of great opera.
The Magic Flute opens in Hafren, Newtown, Powys on Friday February 17th 2017 and is touring until early May 2017. It will delight both loyal opera loving audiences and welcome newcomers with a production definitely aimed at family fun and offering the ideal introduction to the art form we’re so passionate about.
Incoming Artistic Director Richard Studer said: “ The new production of Mozart's mythical and magical opera owes more than a nodding debt to the art of pantomime, a surreal world of heroes and villains, myth and magic : high drama, high art, high notes and high camp mix in a blaze of colour, comedy and puppetry as we enter the ever inventive battleground of Mozart's imagination where the forces of good pursue victory over the evil Queen of the Night.”
A true testament if ever there was one to Mozart’s genius, The Magic Flute is packed with some of the composer’s most recognisable music, from heartfelt duets and comic exchanges to one of operas most formidable and memorable arias, that of the Queen of the Night.
Meanwhile our departing Artistic Director Nicholas Cleobury, who is leaving MWO to take up a role as Head of Opera at Queensland Conservatoire in Brisbane, Australia, teams up with the internationally renowned Director Martin Constantine to lead a co-production of Handel’s Semele with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama opening on Wednesday February 8th 2017 at the college’s Richard Burton Theatre in Cardiff.
The co-production builds on 2014’s collaboration on the same composer’s Acis and Galatea, which received four star reviews from The Times and The Guardian amongst others. The tour promises to be a rare treat for lovers of both opera and the music of the baroque period and begins with four nights in Cardiff.
The production and tour have been funded by Arts Council Wales Lottery and Colwinston Charitable Trust and will offer around 35 of the college’s students the opportunity to work with our professional singers and orchestral players and tour to venues across Wales.
First performed in 1744 at Covent Garden, Handel’s Semele originally appeared as an Oratorio rather than an opera – and instantly caused a stir. The production used Congreve’s libretto based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses to bring to life the tragic tale of Semele’s ill-fated love for Jupiter the King of the Gods.
Featuring giant eagles, a dragon-guarded castle, thunder and lightning the Oratorio was a spectacular departure from Handel’s previous works and ran for only four nights. Revived only once in December 1744, Semele was never again performed in his lifetime and only brought back into repertoire by professional companies in the twentieth century – we believe this will be the debut professional production in Wales.
The work is undoubtedly one of the jewels of baroque opera. It contains the stunning tenor aria “Where’er you walk” and Semele’s joyous “Endless pleasure, endless love.”
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