I couldn't tell you how many productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute I have seen, ranging from the reverential to the downright stupid. But I don't think I've ever seen one which conjures up what it must have been like in the Theater auf der Wieden in the autumn of 1791 than this one from Kit Hesketh-Harvey for Merry Opera.
The company lives up to its name. That doesn't mean that musical quality is sacrificed; on the contrary. The pared-down ensemble led by Stephen Hose at the keyboard may be tucked upstage right but its five members subtly contrive to be part of the action. The young singers act well and deliver the music with skill as well as affection.
Hesketh-Harvey interweaves the plot of the opera with Mozart's own final months – the debilitating illnesses, the lack of courtly preferment, the endless stream of creditors – and cleverly plays up both the pantomimic elements (Tamino's initial naivety is partly that of a principal boy; Papageno elicits "he's behind you!" and "oh no he isn't!" from the onstage audience) and the febrile atmosphere of a society all-too aware of the revolution bubbling away in France.
So Mozart is Tamino, his wife Constanza is Pamina, his diva of a sister-in-law is the Queen of the Night, impressario Schikanader is Papagano and Sarastro is fellow lodge-member von Born. Constnza's maids transform logically into the three ladies and then don masks and breeches to become the three boys. In the ordeal scene, the dying Mozart's doctors are the armed men who guard the place of ritual.
It all works splendidly. Daisy Brown is a lyrical Pamina; Samantha Hay delivers her second-act aria with a security slightly missing from "Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren". James Harrison's Papageno is earthily materialistic while Lawrence Olsworth-Peter as Tamino/Mozart takes us to a higher plane with "Dies Bilden ist bezaubernd schön". Glenn Tweedie makes Monostatos into a properly three-dimensional character and Richard Immerglück is an authoritative Sarastro.
The three ladies (I nearly said the three little maids from school) are Viki Hart, Catarina Sereno and Kristin Finnigan. They have the audience on their side before ever they've sung a note and manage to suggest the slightly sinister other-worldliness of the boys as much as that of the Queen's attendants; I particularly appreciated their hissed "boring!" afterthought at the end of "O Isis und Osiris". Fiona Russell's costumes ring changes on a pastel palette and Sophia Simensky's minimal setting transforms cleverly from scene to scene.