Simon Callow has a strong Mozartian pedigree having not only been the first to play the composer in Peter Schaffer's Amadeus but also having embodied Schikaneder, librettist of the Magic Flute, in Milos Forman's film of the play. The film, in particular, shaped a whole generation's view of Mozart as a divinely inspired buffoon and Callow's association with it has played, it would seem, no small part in his unashamedly returning to the opera's roots in Viennese folk theatre.
Callow has said that this Magic Flute will be his last foray into directing opera and, amazingly, it is the first time Opera Holland Park has staged the work. Performed in Michael Geliot's solid translation, it's a production that seems less troubled with trying to find a consistent interpretation of the work than producing a decent evening's entertainment. It succeeds by and large in that aim, but presents a broad variety of ideas that one is hard-pressed to fit into any larger interpretative scheme.
Tom Philips' design features a backdrop with colourful symbols and a series of doors, a stylized tree stands centre stage, opening for various characters to make their entrances. While the set seems to mix elements of Oriental and African theatre, the Queen of the Night and her three ladies appear in black 1950s dresses, Papagena is a pin-up from the same era, and Monastatos wears a tatty, scarlet military jacket. Interestingly, Sarastro is recast as a man of action, making one entrance running down from the back of the theatre; at his first appearance he looks more like Escamillo from Carmen. The three boys are dressed in school uniform and while Papageno sports the customary feathery jacket, six actors in loin cloths represent nature, first the snake that chases Tamino and then the animals in the forest he charms with his flute. Monastatos' slaves, given a short and superfluous scene of their own before their master's entry, are, conversely, mop-haired animals.
There's a profusion of ideas and, on the whole, more hits than misses, yet while the colour and exuberance of the production make it difficult not to enjoy, Callow has latched on to certain specific ideas to assign them extra significance but without providing enough of a consistent vision for the audience to understand that significance. Much is made, for example, of the fact Tamino is a Japanese prince – he and Pamina end up in some sort ceremonial Japanese dress in the final scene and there's some heavy-handed play on the words Jap and chap – but this simply causes confusion.
As if to underline the traditional dichotomy critics have detected in this work – between Schikaneder's libretto, described by Edward Dent 'one of the most absurd specimens of that form of literature in which absurdity is regarded as a matter of course', and Mozart's sublime music – Jane Glover's reading of the score was masterly. From an account of the overture that was alert and alive, each number was unerringly paced and the playing of the City of London Sinfonia was excellent. There were a couple of occasions when pit and stage were not together – most often in the ensembles involving the otherwise excellent three ladies – but this did little to undermine the overall effect.
It was unfortunate that the opening night was denied Roland Wood's Papageno, who was indisposed. Although his understudy, Jonathan Gunthorpe, acquitted himself admirably, he seemed understandably nervous having been thrust into the limelight at short notice. He wasn't helped by having to adopt a generic working class accent which, although effective enough in the dialogue, was also applied to his singing where it didn't sit as comfortably. Nerves also meant that Gunthorpe was reluctant to sing out, especially in the first act, and let his warm and pleasing baritone do the work. As his companion, Andrew Staples' Tamino was played straight and sung with assurance. It's a voice with a fair amount of lyricism but at times, with its slightly acid tinge and impressive power, wanted for Mozartian charm. As a tall, young Sarastro, Tim Mirfin is cast against one's expectations for the role and was not entirely successful: the voice is rich and warm but is weak in the all important lower register, undermining the authority of the characterisation. Mark Le Brocq's Monastatos camped it up unashamedly in a highly entertaining if unsubtle performance. Stephen Gadd's Speaker (or Priest, as he is recast in the synopsis for this production) started with earnest solemnity in his scene with Tamino but became, rather disconcertingly, increasingly unhinged and fanatical as the evening progressed.
The female characters were probably better served, headed by Flur Wyn's enchanting Pamina. She was prim and proper in her early dialogue but brought genuine passion and humanity to her Act Two aria and final scene with the three boys. Penelope Randall-Davis is a regular as Queen of the Night both in the UK and abroad and showed us why: if she lacks a little accuracy in the middle range, she can nail all the top notes impressively. She and her high-quality trio of ladies (Natasha Jouhl, Carolyn Dobbin, Alexandra Sherman) threw themselves into their roles with abandon, although the fact that the ladies all had very different accents added some confusion. Pippa Goss's Papagena effected her transformations from hag to fifties pin-up brilliantly, and was a charming presence on stage.
The first outing of Mozart's final opera at Opera Holland Park is far from perfect but there's much to enjoy in Callow's knock-about production. It makes few attempts at unravelling the work's symbolisim or commenting on its Masonic or Enlightenment references, but harks back to its humble origins. Teeming with ideas, brimming with colour and underpinned by Glover's instinctive reading of the score, it is refreshingly unpretentious and unburdened by the weight of Mozart's genius.
By Hugo Shirley