GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS SWEPT UP IN THE MAGIC, THE MUSIC AND THE META
Opera Alegria’s vivacious foray into Mozart’s Magic Flute for Grimeborn takes its inspiration from the theatrical superstition of the ghost light, a small light left lit on every stage in an empty theatre to appease the spirits which may (allegedly) haunt the wings. Director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith, in a poignant programme note, relates this tradition of “keeping a light on” in a dark theatre to the struggle which artists of all kinds faced through Covid: as the malevolent Monostatos (Robert Jenkins), a brutal Front of House Manager, threatens Pamina, “Maybe your next job’s in cyber.” Watching the Arcola Main Stage defiantly bursting with real-life, real world talent back doing what they were born to do, their energy and enthusiasm crackling out at us all night, the short-sighted callousness of that slogan has only got more toe-curling with time. We are lucky that Opera Alegria’s team were not won over to cyber, as this Magic Flute joyously proves.
Nevertheless, keeping the theatrical lights on is hard work, and the vortex artists inhabit between failure and success, nerves, money, talent and the determined pursuit of Art in the face of public criticism and private self-doubt is the central neurosis of this often rather meta production, as explained in librettist Lindsay Bramley’s equally emotional and punchy programme note. Pamina here is an aspirational young performer, played with fresh charm by soprano Naomi Kilby. Keen to escape the traditional theatre practices of her ageing diva Mother, the Queen of the Night (a majestic, show-stopping Fae Evelyn), Pamina has joined the experimental troupe of Sarastro (Alistair Sutherland), a Svengali-like Conceptual Director in a white Warhol wig and a kaftan, whose idea of theatrical heaven is “the Tantric Grunge Collective’s simultaneous treatment of the works of Samuel Beckett.” [Sounds like he has an instinct for an Edinburgh Fringe hit, anyway.] Sutherland’s rich and resonant bass, though not always diving right down to the very deepest pearls of Mozart’s challenging score, brings a commanding fascination to Sarastro, while a few brilliantly observed character tics (a fussiness in walking, deliberate over-pronunciation of words, and mystic finger cymbals) explain Sarastro’s cult leader status with ease and humour. The glorious casting only gets better for the Three Ladies, with Caroline Carragher, Anna Prowse and Frances Stafford forming a truly fabulous trio of cleaners, reappearing in death metal T shirts (and equally terrific voice) as Stage Management. With many roles doubled or even tripled, this ensemble never miss a note, a harmony or a comic beat: true luxury casting. Snapping at their heels for our attention is a honey-toned and remarkably lovable Papageno from René Bloice-Sanders, whose laddish disconnection from the artistic crises around him provides welcome contrast. Peter Martin’s pleasantly-sung Tamino, some skilful humour from Christopher Killerby and deft support from Matthew Duncan round off a strong cast. Lindsay Bramley’s lambent and expressive piano accompaniment sheds colour and a pulsing sense of rhythm across the whole.
Christopher Killerby’s clever, pared-down design keeps us in the world of an undressed theatre with clever use of puppetry to animate ordinary backstage objects, the “ghost light” chasing Tamino like an angry Chinese Dragon, while Papageno’s birds are flying music scores. Not everything works: the final use of projection, though elegant, happens at an angle not easily visible to much of the audience. More crucially, the innate problems of The Magic Flute, a nonsensical story whose plot turns on emotional hair triggers with little rational explanation, remain. Indeed, updating the Flute to a contemporary setting, with rather more “real” personalities for Pamina and Tamino, only accentuates the Flute’s intrinsic weaknesses: ironically for a piece from the Age of Enlightenment, it seemingly can never work as believable modern drama, because the archaic sexual and social dynamics constantly trip it up. Bramley and Newhouse-Smith are using it as a vehicle for a good discussion of modern problems, but sometimes, like turning one of Papageno’s paper birds into a carrier pigeon, the plot is just too weak to carry their admirable ideas home. However, as far as nonsense goes, it’s absolutely gorgeous, meta-fuelled, thought-provoking nonsense from start to finish; and the music making is sublime. Don’t waste too much time trying to make sense of it: there’s still plenty to enjoy here.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Until 20 August at the Arcola Theatre, 020 7503 1646: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/the-magic-flute/