The Magic Flute
Merry Opera Company
Barn Theatre Oxted and touring
The Magic Flute usually has a big cast and orchestra. Can you do it with just seven performers and a keyboard? Yes, given the imagination and wit that director John Ramster brings to Merry Opera Company, you certainly can. And it comes off in spades.
In fact there are advantages to a small cast in which everyone doubles and there are no stars. Musical clarity shines through. For example in the love duet between Tamino (James Searle) and Pamina (Rebecca Milford) the harmony is exquisitely delivered. You are forced to hear every note and suspension afresh.
The Magic Flute is an eccentric piece full of obscure Masonic symbolism and it’s unusual because Schikaneder’s libretto was written in German (not Italian) and includes spoken dialogue. The sparky Jeremy Sams translation is wittily upbeat and some of his rhyme is as good as WS Gilbert. It means that the opera becomes very accessible and the story telling – which can quite easily get lost in The Magic Flute – shines through like a beacon.
The cast consists of three women and four men, one of whom is a counter tenor. Casting is as cross-gender as it can be with, for example the Priests’ chorus arranged to accommodate women’s voices. Dominic Mattos, an accomplished actor with a versatile and high counter tenor voice, is excellent as the Third Lady and all the three boys are sung by women.
Eleri Gwilym delights as Queen of the Night. Of course, this talented young singer hits all those show-stopping high notes in both arias. But she also manages to make them funny – a furious, poisonous witch-like woman hurling her invective at people. It’s quite a performance.
And Christopher Faulkner is the best Papageno I’ve seen in a long time. He looks wonderful in pink tights and a feathery hat, hopping about ruefully and he sings impeccably (in a “rural” accent) in his famous solos as well as in ensemble numbers.
It’s quirky – as The Magic Flute really has to be. The three ladies wear red plastic macs and carry pale blue handbags. The serpent is made of a length of silver insulation pipe with a face at one end so it’s suitably slinky. Sarastro is dressed like Karl Lagerfeld and Searle lisps in vowels so distorted that he makes Jacob Rees Mogg sound like an East End barrow boy.
It all adds to the fun but, of course, it’s the music which really matters and music director Kelvin Lim, who sits at keyboard where an orchestra pit would be, has drawn excellent work out of most of the cast. Merry Opera Company specialises in providing a bursary-supported springboard for emerging young performers. Since 2007 it has worked with over 240 professional singers. Of these 80% have gone on to major opera house choruses and 41 have launched international solo careers.
This performance at the delightful Barn Theatre in Oxted marked the opening of a ten-venue tour for this show. Catch it if you can. You won’t be disappointed but I warn you, it comes with earworms. My head is still rattling with glorious Mozartian snippets.