Tuesday night saw an exciting milestone: my first Flute. I get the feeling the Flute is a bit like the Nutcracker, in that many people first encounter it as children, as a magical way into its art form. However, having waited until adulthood to take the plunge, I was less concerned about the magic and more about whether I’d be able to follow its complicated allegories of Masonic enlightenment. Fortunately, Hampstead Garden Opera’s production told a delightfully clear story which emphasised the narrative at its heart: a mother struggling to do her best for her child, and the transformative effects of first love.
The knight Tamino (Matthew Howard) stumbles into a mystical country while fleeing a fearsome beast. As he lies in a swoon, the beast is dispatched by three Ladies (Rachel Wood, Thalie Knights and Stephanie Wake-Edwards), ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of the Night. They admire the sleeping Tamino and hurry to bring news of his arrival to their Queen. While they’re gone, Tamino is woken by the arrival of Papageno (Mark Nathan), who makes his living whistling the birds down from the trees and selling them to the Queen’s palace. Poor Papageno happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, for the Queen herself (Fleur de Bray) presently appears and tells Tamino the tragic story of her daughter Pamina, who has been stolen away by the sorcerer Sarastro and is now kept in his fortress. On seeing a picture of Pamina, Tamino falls in love at first sight (it’s Fate: their names rhyme) and he swears to rescue the fair maiden from the tower, etc. Pamina (Tara Mansfield), it transpires, would be glad of help. While Sarastro is a benevolent captor, she has to suffer the attention of his slimy henchman Monostatos (James Hutchings), and she is delighted to hear that a handsome prince has come to save her.
But what’s this? As Papageno and Tamino sneak around in Sarastro’s fortress, they are captured by his minions and brought before the sorcerer himself. Alarmingly, Sarastro (Ben Rowarth) turns out to be a reasonable sort: a thinker; a pacifist; an acolyte of a higher wisdom. His only fault, indeed, is that he’s not overly keen on female emancipation. He’s the High Priest of the Brotherhood which, as you might imagine, only accepts men; and his main quarrel with the Queen of the Night seems to be that she’s a woman. The backstory is that her late husband, the King of the Day, left the Circle of the Sun to the Brotherhood on his death, thereby draining the Queen of all her powers. Long story short: the Queen wants the Circle (and her daughter) back, while Sarastro is determined to keep such power out of women’s hands, because who knows what they might do with it? That’s also why he has captured Pamina: so that the poor dear can learn to be guided and advised by men, and to stop her becoming demanding and hysterical like her mother.
Tamino, being a man, thinks that Sarastro’s not a bad sort and is persuaded to undergo the trials of initiation into the Brotherhood, having been promised that he will get Pamina as his bride. Papageno is, likewise, encouraged by the promise of a wife (whose name is Papagena – destiny speaks again), although he’s not overly thrilled by the discovery that his betrothed is an older lady (Phillippa Scammell, performing with relish). But never mind. He’s young and eager and it’ll all be all right in the end. Or will it? For Papageno is a simple sort and isn’t keen on the dangers of the trials. Tamino looks set to face the fearsome tests alone, but then, at the last minute, Pamina breaks all the rules and comes to join him. Their joint trial brings them through into the light, resulting in widespread joy and contentment and – thanks to Pamina’s act of innovation – the admission of women into the Brotherhood. Man and woman are raised to enlightenment together on an equal level, the Queen of the Night is reconciled with Sarastro, and the two young couples are joined in marriage.
For once, three paragraphs hardly seems to do justice to the complexities of this story, but it covers the essentials. HGO have set the scene in a strange looking-glass world, where bags of rubbish fill the corners of the set (unexplained), characters sometimes enter the stage via a slide from above, and the labyrinthine fortress and trials are evoked by the clever use of doors wheeled here and there by the chorus. I was very fond of the doors, but there were times when I felt the rest of the visual busyness could have been scaled back just slightly, to balance the already complex plot. Fortunately I didn’t have to cope with surtitles as well, as the opera was performed in English, in a lucid translation by Jeremy Sams, complemented by spoken dialogue in the place of recitative, written by the director Toria Banks.
I had wanted to see this particular cast in order to support Thalie Knights, who was singing Second Lady, and was happily much delighted by the Ladies. Dressed in oversized heels, they tottered around, interrupted, badgered and browbeat Tamino and Papageno, while also acting as harbingers for their Queen. All three voices – soprano, mezzo and deeper mezzo – blended beautifully and Wood, Knights and Wake-Edwards played off one another splendidly as well. HGO always deliver very strongly on their comic characters, and so it was probably no surprise that I was also very taken by Nathan’s Papageno. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he was my favourite character: another comic ‘servant’ stealing the day, as Elviro and Leporello did before him! Not only was his baritone phenomenally powerful, but he also gave us a Papageno who was naive, gauche and utterly adorable. The main challenge of a singspiel is that the cast have to be good actors as well as good singers, and this isn’t a given by any means; but Nathan’s Papageno brought a thread of warm humour to the production, especially in his interactions with Scammell’s shy Papagena.
As Tamino, decked out in a crusader’s surcoat, Howard had a gentle and romantic tenor, very fitting for this veray parfit gentil knight. He was perhaps a little on the light side, as the orchestra sometimes overshadowed him, and occasionally some of his higher notes sounded forced, but he made a convincingly besotted lover. His Pamina, Mansfield, was appropriately girlish both in demeanor and singing, although she also had some excellent power in reserve, ready for those few moments where Mozart throws in some scattergun notes which echo her mother’s signature style. And, if we’re to speak of singing, then de Bray (as the Queen) deserves some applause for tackling that aria, a dizzying tumbling and spiralling of notes, of which I listened to the most complicated parts without blinking or breathing, as if watching some juggling trick.
By including a dumbshow during the overture, this production places the Queen at the heart of the story: a young mother who is left literally holding the baby on her husband’s death, who finds everything taken away by the Brotherhood’s operatives, and who spends the next fifteen years nursing a desire for revenge. Although she doesn’t appear that often, she makes a strong emotional impact and, although she and Sarastro don’t meet until the final chorus, their rivalry dominates the story. I wondered for a moment whether her husband really was dead, or whether Sarastro used to be the King and had then abandoned wife and child to devote himself to the Brotherhood. There were echoes of Oberon and Titania about these two estranged and vengeful powers. That would also give a more plausible reason for Sarastro’s abduction of Pamina. And would it perhaps explain why – despite his custom to the contrary – Sarastro is actually extremely unbothered about Pamina opening up the Brotherhood to women? Hmm. Things to consider. Much to read.
Another aspect of the staging I really liked was the way that the doors opened out into mirrored walls for the final test in the initiation. As Pamina and Tamino faced their future selves in this reflected world, it brought home the greatest lesson to be learned in the journey to enlightenment: know thyself.
On first encounter, I didn’t love the Flute as much as I’ve loved other Mozart operas, which is entirely down to the composer and librettist rather than the company. Like The Abduction from the Seraglio, another singspiel, it just feels like a play with music: music that isn’t quite as sublime as that written for Figaro and Clemenza, and that by its episodic nature feels far more artificial than something sung from start to finish. However, I’m aware that only a fool criticises a genius, and I’m fully prepared to get a recording and settle down to acquaint myself better with the whole piece. My impression was just that Mozart was trying to do too much at once, and it’s interesting that the Flute was written in the same year as the less successful and somewhat beleaguered Idomeneo.
However, HGO faced the challenges inherent in this opera with great aplomb, and it was lovely to see them responding to the opportunities of their new space at Jackson’s Lane. It was my first visit to the venue and it looks as if it’s going to be a perfect match for HGO’s creativity and exuberance. Whether or not you’re an established fan of the Flute, it’s well worth heading up to Highgate (the theatre is right opposite the tube station). If you’re familiar with the opera’s melodies, twists and turns, you’ll be able to relish the way this young team teases out its key themes while, if you’re a Flute newbie like me, you’ll have the benefit of a quirky and colourful production that eases you in with some impressive performances and its heart firmly in the right place. But hurry, because it closes on the 20th!
Plus, now is a very good time to get on HGO’s mailing list, because their next production already has me fidgeting with excitement: no less than Poppea, coming to Jackson’s Lane in May 2017…