The Magic Flute (Hackney Empire – tour)

English Touring Opera’s popular production of Mozart’s late Singspiel embarks on a lengthy spring tour

The Queen of the Night has certainly spread her pall over The Magic Flute in English Touring Opera’s sepulchral staging. Visually, though not in mood, it’s quite the gloomiest account of Mozart’s Singspiel I’ve encountered since Anthony Besch’s pleasure-sapping murk-fest for ENO – and that was forty years ago.

Samantha Hay as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute (ETO)
Samantha Hay as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute (ETO)
(c) Robert Workman

ETO’s apparent fixation with low-wattage theatre is a regular frustration, but never more so than here. Chloe Lamford‘s handsome four-level set is painted indigo from top to toe, and lighting designer Guy Hoare seems less inclined to illuminate its surfaces than use them a backdrop for the cast’s hand-held fluorescent baubles and giant glowing cotton buds. No one with failing eyesight need attend.

Much brightness emerged from the pit at least, as James Southall‘s brisk account of the overture heralded a clean, energetic reading that encouraged Mozart’s melodies to sing like Papageno’s birds. ETO has assembled a superb orchestra for its spring season, and once again the music sparkled.

Darkness aside, Liam Steel‘s production (revived here by James Hurley) has plenty going for it. He sets out his stylised stall in the opening moments by representing the dragon that almost slays Tamino as a chorus of hooray Henrys dancing a conga, and he mostly sustains invigorating levels of inventiveness thereafter.

Yet there is a fearful symmetry to Steel’s stage dispositions – not always a comfortable fit in a work peopled with Masonic threesomes – while his tendency to over-rigorous choreography flirts with deadliness as doors open and close in unison and clusters of characters step in scrupulous time.

Most roles have been double-cast to allow this proven crowd-pleaser to be given a concentration of consecutive performances during ETO’s otherwise audacious spring tour. On opening night at the Hackney Empire Ashley Catling‘s Tamino was more wand’ring minstrel than intrepid prince, but Anna Patalong‘s Pamina was sweetly sung, vulnerable yet poised, and Wyn Pencarreg as the love-deprived Papageno combined knockout characterisation with a mellifluous baritone delivery.

The Magic Flute demands strength in depth and that was certainly the case here, from the profundity of Andrew Slater‘s Sarastro to the stratosphere of Samantha Hay‘s triumphant Queen of the Night. And if Stuart Haycock seemed much too fair of face as the villainous Monostatos, that was all of a piece with the director’s modish aesthetic.

The lampshade-wearing trio of boys who guide our heroes’ steps here resemble the Knave of Hearts, though of course they’re a lot more reliable and, as sung by Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas and Laura Kelly, delightfully scene-stealing. Ditto the three Ladies, given spirited interpretations by Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne and Helen Johnson.

The awkward delivery of much spoken dialogue was not the fault of Jeremy Sams, whose translation is a model confection that rejoices in its own doggerel yet never overpowers either the composer’s intentions or those of Emanuel Schikaneder, his librettist, impresario and primogenial Papageno.

For anyone young at heart and (more essentially) bright of eye, ETO’s Magic Flute, conceptually deft, musically satisfying and consistently entertaining, is a winner. But it's a couple of neons short of Enlightenment.

The Magic Flute joins Paul Bunyan and King Priam on a national tour throughout March, April and May 2014. Details here .