Flute reviews

John Frayn Turner in the Surrey Advertiser, June 17 2004

Leatherhead was lucky to be included in Surrey Opera’s current tour of this magical masterpiece.

For audiences, it is best to transmute its plot from a complex tapestry of Egyptian/Christian/Orphic origins into the classic battle - or blend - of right and wrong, naivete and refinement, instinct and reason. This also allowed for infinite ideas within the framework of Mozart’s music and, of course, like Shakespeare, the story is ageless.

The updated, 21st century production certainly took advantage of varied visual possibilities by setting the story in modernish dress against gymnastic props such as ropes and vaulting horses.

With the three original doors of Wisdom, Art and Labour replaced by circus-like hoops, the hero had to somersault through one of them - almost in mid-song!

This dazzling and daring version was first produced last year by the British Youth Opera, and the Surrey company’s cast also emphasised youth. Yet their training, both in singing and acting, belied their age and appeared mature.

The lovers were played by Alexander Anderson-Hall, as Tamino, and Sian Jones, as Pamina. Both sang strongly, solo and in duets, while acting with convincing appeal. Eamonn Dougan had purity and power of voice while extracting humour and pathos from Papageno. His final duet with new-found Papagena, by Samantha Binnie, as always, made for a Mozartian climax.

Strength of singing ran right through the cast, with Margarita Elia reaching diva level with her dramatic Act 2 aria as Queen of the Night.

Andrew Kidd, bass-baritone, gave a suitably strong interpretation of the wise if authoritarian Sarastro.

The vocal score requires real reliance on the three ladies. The ideal trio here were Cheryl Enever, Anneka Ulmer and Bronwen Haydock. How refreshing to have such depth of operatic ability among current musical youth - plus professionalism and dedication . Tim Baldwin was Speaker and Andrew O’Brien sang as (an Irish!) Monostatos.

Jonathan Butcher conducted the 18-piece orchestra with his accustomed care.

Ashley Dean was the revival director of this production, originally translated and conceived by Christopher Cowell.

Bridget Kimak designed the amenable, adaptable set.

This production of the The Magic Flute is at the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield, Croydon until this Saturday (June 19). See it if you can - it’s magic!

A truly magic flute from Surrey Opera

Chris Wells in the Haslemere Herald, 18 June 2004

A funky, frisky Flute full of fascination was the treat for the Haslemere Hall audience at a performance of Mozart’s sublime opera The Magic Flute given by Surrey Opera.

It was refreshing to hear quality singing and, in a production deftly revived by Ashley Dean, to witness good acting and a rapt audience.

Alexander Anderson-Hall as Tamino sang with a secure rounded tone and sensitive phrasing.

Andrew Kidd as Sarastro possesses a rich lyric bass voice which promises great things, and Daniela Schuster as Papagena gave the most sprightly performance of the evening - sexy and seductive.

Cheryl Enever, Anneka Ulmer and Bronwen Haydock as the pouting, peroxided Three Ladies could easily steal the show with their slick routines and sassy characterisation, aided and abetted by Christopher Cowell’s incisive and witty translation.

The highlights of the evening came from three performers in particular. Margarita Elia was striking as the Queen of the Night - the famous arias assured, ringing and uplifting; Sian Jones’s winning, fine voiced Pamina full of pathos; and Paul Sheehan’s gentle, humorous and lovable Papageno.

The conductor and artistic director, Jonathan Butcher, encouraged the small orchestra to play with real gusto and conviction throughout.

Tim Passmore in Opera Talent, 18 June 2004

This Magic Flute only partly succeeds in staging terms. While admittedly the adventures of a fairy-tale prince and his oafish sidekick can be interpreted as a fable of adolescence-to-adulthood progression, a drab school gymnasium setting adds little texture to such a reading. Worse, it tends to sap the magic out of the fantasy scenes and the grandeur out of the quasi-Masonic choruses. Thankfully the knockabout pantomime elements and Mozart’s delightful score are well served by this company of gifted amateurs and emerging professionals.

There are quite a few things that don’t visually work in this production, but three of the most conspicuous are the Queen of Night’s minions. In their platinum wigs they look like a Supremes tribute band that has been through the wash with a bottle of bleach. Neither does their Motown choreography meld well with Mozart’s lyrical elegance.

Fortunately the Ladies - Cheryl Enever, Anneka Ulmer and Bronwen Haydock - sing with gorgeous tone and faultless intonation. So too do the three “boys”, Jacqueline O’Shea, Melanie Lodge and Barbara Bell, who are much more appropriately portrayed as plucky cub scouts.

There is also much to enjoy in the perfomance of the principals. Alexander Anderson-Halls’s firm, burnished tenor admirably negotiates the cruelly high tessitura of the romantic lead, Tamino, and achieves some moments of real heroic power. Sian Jones, as his beloved Pamina, gives us a spunky heroine, vocally very bright yet sensitively phrased in lyrical passages. Eamonn Dougan steals the show as Papageno, expertly milking his spoken and visual comedy, and singing winningly. The audience is clearly delighted with the appearance of his Papagena, and Samantha Binnie’s merry, clear-voiced charm in the role does not disappoint.

As the Queen of Night, Margarita Elia makes good use of black evening wear and melodramatic posturing, making us distrust her from the outset. Her slender, but wonderfully rounded tones are seductive in just the right way, and she is close to mastering the coloratura difficulties of the role. Andrew Kidd’s genial, smallish voice and marionette makeup both abet the directorial prescription for a dying Sarastro. However much it upsets the opera’s overall plot design, this is a well thought-out performance.

The chorus sings rousingly under the baton of Jonathan Butcher, whose energetic conducting also draws some sterling playing from the pit band. The wind sonorities of the ingenuously reduced orchestration are served especially well by the clear acoustics of the Ashcroft Theatre.

Frank Ruhrmund in The Cornishman, 1 September 2004

A fine Bank Holiday Monday night, a quiet sea, a full house, a full moon, and the music of Mozart in a splendid, sparky and slightly irreverent production by Surrey Opera of The Magic Flute - what more could one wish for this side of that great feathered nest in the sky?

As a lady from New Zealand said on the night, and I hope she won’t mind me quoting her:“This is absolutely divine!”

First staged in Vienna in 1791, only weeks before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died, this version, translated and directed by Christopher Cowell in 2003 for the British Youth Opera in London, updates it from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century and its Swinging ‘60s.

While purists may shudder at the thought, it loses nothing on the way but, on the contrary, gains the bonus of three great Ladies of the night - Cheryl Enever, Anneka Ulmer and Bronwen Haydock. An amalgam of the Three Degrees, the Ronettes and the Charm (remember them?) they must surely be the most appealing , best moving, backing group Mozart has ever had.

An opera, as it has been said, with “two acts and many facets”, one of the last-named being its plot which is so weird it hardly bears thinking about, its director needs all the skills of a juggler in balancing the fantasy and fun of its first act with the despair and death of its second, and its man versus woman theme, while handling its elements of enchantment, ritual, pathos and vulnerability, not to mention soul, and at the same time underlining its underlying message regarding the power of music and the fact that we really do need to love one another if we are to survive.

Fortunately, the company’s artistic director Jonathan Butcher somehow manages to do all this and more, but not without the help of his 12 strong orchestra, some superb singing from his principals led on the opening night by Paul Sheehan, an accomplished actor as well as singer, and an extremely engaging Papageno; Jane Streeton (Pamina); Tom Raskin (Tamino); coloratura Margarita Elia (the Queen of the Night); Andrew Kidd (Sarastro); and Andrew O’Brien (Monostatos). With its trio of Bob-a-Jobbing Cub Scouts - Jacqueline O’Shea, Melanie Lodge and Barbara Bell - a strong chorus, and Daniela Schuster as Papagena, who, in common with her soul mate Papageno we have to wait a long time to meet but who is worth every second of the waiting time, this is , indeed, a magical Magic Flute: one which lives up to both the company’s claim of being “rollicking good entertainment” and with its heavenly singing, of that of the lady from New Zealand of being “absolutely divine!”

A very different concept, the Magic Flute, 16 June 2004 at the Theatre Leatherhead

Derrick Graham in Words+Music, September/October 2004

This production at the Leatherhead Theatre, under the baton of Jonathan Butcher, is so different from the original concept, that without knowing the traditional settings, actions and props, much of what went on would not make a great deal of sense. Mozart’s music, was of course not changed and with the superb orchestra and voices it did not matter very much if the finale had Pamina and Tamino climbing into giant TV sets which then appeared to be filled with smoke and water.

The opening was startling enough anyway with a vast spiral hooped tube on the stage representing a snake from which the Queen’s three Ladies drag the unconscious body of Prince Tamino. This being the 1960s, the ladies are in tigerskin print mini-dresses with long blonde wigs and looked absolutely stunning. Cheryl Enever, Anneka Ulmer and Bronwen Haydock have superb voices and got this production off to a lively start. The setting was vaguely gymnastic with climbing ropes, rubber mats and a vast vaulting horse whose sections doubled as enclosures and a judge’s bench.

The Queen of Night portrayed by Margarita Elia had the stature and presence to carry out this commanding role and a magnificant voice for her arias. Her bird catcher Papageno, Eamonn Dougan, brought out well the pathos and humour of this role using his very clear voice to get over the dialogue as well as the libretto (which sadly could not be said for several other members of the cast).

Tamino is given a picture of the Queen’s daughter Pamina and instantly falls in love and sets off to rescue her from the evil Sarastro (Andrew Kidd). Tom Raskin’s voice was superb with acting skill to match and as he seeks Sarastro’s court, he is given a magic flute for his protection and Papageno a kind of musical box whereby turning a handle plays a set of bells.

Tamino has to pass through three doors for Wisdom, Art and Labour, in the form of paper covered rings through which he dives. He is assisted in his search by three Boy Scouts, whose uniforms hardly conceal the fact that they are Jacqueline O’Shea. Melanie Lodge and Barbara Bell. The lovers are finally re-united as Tamino is about to undergo a trial of fire and water, Pamina goes through it with him (hence the giant TV sets) and they step out to usher in a new era of wisdom and beauty.

A fantastically different production first produced last year by The British Youth Opera and recreated for the Surrey Opera by Ashley Dean.

Gone to Pot

Matthew Peacock in Opera Now, September/October 2004

An eminent director once told me that he would never tackle The Magic Flute because directing it would, as he put it “scare the shit out of me”. It’s not hard to see why - in my 10 years of reviewing operas, I can’t think of one production which has entirely made sense of this quirky work. Yet, because of the ravishing score and perceived ‘saleability’ of the show, companies continue to be wooed into producing it.

This production by Surrey Opera and British Youth Opera was first performed by BYO in August last year. The original director, Christopher Cowell wanted to set the work in a “lively world poised between innocence and maturity - our universe is seen through the eyes of teenagers in the 1960s”. It’s an interesting idea, but there seemed to be no consistency to the images, and the ‘60s ‘thread’ soon got lost under references from other eras - the chorus of Keystone Cops; the plastic-clad, Pulp Fiction ‘gimp’ of Monstatos. Also thrown into the mix were a plethora of other unrelated ideas such as the gymnasium to represent the impending trials, smoke-filled television sets (answers on a postcard please), the Second Priest as a Northern Irish protestant minister and a limping, tweed-clad Sarastro who died in a wheelchair in the final scene. Perhaps the audience were meant to experience the mind-altering effect of ‘60s hallucinogenic drugs by being bombarded with these images. To me, it just seemed like a jumble, lacking in continuity and purpose.

The cast on the other hand were superb; Tom Raskin as the earnest Tamino, unswervingly focused on his goal, and Paul Sheehan as a charmingly clumsy Papageno were excellent; their scenes together were the highlight of the show and both sang and performed with panache. Jane Streeton’s Pamina, Andrew Kidd’s Sarastro, Cheryl Enever’s First Lady and Margarita Elia’s Queen of the Night were also first class.

I have a lot of time for Surrey Opera - the mix of young professionals and amateurs is inspired and inspiring. Sadly, this Magic Flute was not their finest hour.