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Hackney Empire

Mozart produced The Magic Flute in the last year of his life, 1791. Europe was in turmoil. In England, The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine was published and Wilberforce made his first attempt to get slavery abolished. In France, Louis XVI was in prison, soon to be executed. In Vienna, the new emperor Leopold was trying to sort out the mess left by his predecessor Joseph, Mozart’s patron. And generally the forces of superstition and tradition were mounting a rear-guard action against the enlightenment values of reason and science. The magical singspiel that Mozart and Schikaneder produced for the suburban Viennese theatre run by Schikaneder is both a populist pantomime full of heroes and villains, monsters and clowns and an allegory of the triumph of the light of reason over the darkness of superstition. And it is full of Mozart’s most sublime music. This splendid version, directed by Sir Thomas Allen for Scottish Opera, makes a valiant attempt to do justice to both sides of this golden coin.

Prince Tamino is chosen by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the wicked sorcerer, Sarastro, who has abducted her. She chooses Papageno, a simple birdcatcher, to guide and assist him. When Tamino arrives at Sarastro’s temple he finds that all is not quite as the Queen has suggested and he embarks on a series of tests and ordeals in pursuit of Wisdom and Truth that he hopes will lead to Pamina’s freedom and his own enlightenment. Papageno is not convinced by the high-flown ideals of Sarastro’s priestly order and his own accidental journey to a rather different version of personal fulfilment casts a comic light on Tamino’s quest.

This version is set in a bizarre steam-punk version of industrial Glasgow – it is for Scottish Opera after all. Sarastro’s brothers are either top-hatted mine owners or the helmeted miners they employ. The women of his community are Nightingale’s nurses, while the Queen and her henchwomen are from a fairy-tale land of wicked witches. It is a somewhat uneasy set of clashing images but it is a pantomime after all and the overall look, with the huge curved gantries on both sides of the stage, really does grab the attention.

The singing is of a very high standard. Outstanding was Gemma Summerfield as Pamina. She has a rich flexible soprano voice with lots of power to spare. Both her charming ‘Bei Mannern’ duet with Papageno and her formal aria of despair ‘Ach, Ich Fuhl’s’ were sung with enormous expressive beauty, and the moment when she seized the flute from a bewildered Tamino made powerful dramatic sense. As Tamino, Peter Gijsbertsen gave a thoughtful performance as he transformed himself from gullible would-be hero to seeker of wisdom, though his voice was a little harsh in the higher reaches of Tamino’s music – more Verdi than Mozart for my taste. Dingle Yandell as Sarastro and Julia Sitkovetsky as the Queen more than delivered the lows and highs demanded by the composer. James Cleverton’s ‘everyman’ Papageno certainly won the hearts of the audience and he made the most of his relationship with his extraordinary magic bells. Not all the comic dialogue – in a colloquial translation by Kit Hesketh Harvey – worked as well as it needed to, though there were some clever passages, especially one where the name ‘Papageno’ was woven repeatedly into the text.

After a ragged overture, conductor Tobias Ringborg provided a coherent version of the score without the extreme changes of pace that sometimes bedevil this piece. Scottish Opera’s orchestra and chorus were on good form and, despite smaller numbers than is sometimes the case in London, filled the Hackney Empire with joyful sound.

There is a fascinating ongoing debate about the sexism and racism of this opera. For me the key message is in the ending. In this version, as the final chorus swells, Sarastro, champion of male supremacy, walks slowly off the stage and leaves behind at centre stage the new leadership, the prince and princess who will reign jointly. Whether this story is set in 1791 or 2019 I choose to see a hopeful message here and this well-told, well-sung production does not disappoint.

  • Opera
  • By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Libretto by Emanuel Shikaneder (translated by Kit Hesketh Harvey)
  • Directed by Thomas Allen
  • Conducted by Tobias Ringborg
  • Cast includes: Peter Gijsbertsen, Gemma Summerfield, James Cleverton, Dingle Yandell
  • Hackney Empire
  • Until 29th June, at various venues.

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Owen Davies was brought up in London but has Welsh roots. He was raised on chapel hymns, Handel oratorios and Mozart arias. He began going to the theatre in the 1960s and, as a teenager, used to stand at the back of the Old Vic stalls to watch Olivier's National Theatre productions. He also saw many RSC productions at the Aldwych in the 1960s. At this time he also began to see operas at Covent Garden and developed a love for Mozart, Verdi, and Richard Strauss. After a career as a social worker and a trade union officer, Owen has retired from paid employment but as a 'mature student' he has recently gained a certificate in Opera Studies from Rose Bruford College.​

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