It's a relief to find Opera North director James Brining describing Mozart's The Magic Flute as a bit of a jumble sale, stylistically. The mad plot by Schikaneder is both fairy-tale simple (the daughter of the Queen of Night, Pamina, has been taken by her father to his ideal society where the light of reason prevails. Tamino, a wandering prince, is sent to rescue her but after various trials the young couple are happy to remain in the sunny realms of rationality) and at the same time insanely complicated.
There's the totally unheralded fight with a great serpent, the magic bells and flute (well, more of a mini-light sabre here), a wide variety of obscure messages, instructions and vows of silence plus an attempted rape or two and, of course, a comic bird-catcher. Written in 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart's music goes beyond wonderful, moving effortlessly from the sublime embodiment of love and longing to rage, humour and serious silliness.
Opera North do full justice to the complete range, both orchestrally and vocally. They also, simply by dint of thoughtful design, help resolve the persistent problem I have with the plot. Irrationality is, needless to say, personified in the female form of the Queen of the Night (magically sung by Samantha Hay - and how I wanted her black headdress), all dark, unchained emotion, scarily high trills and dangerous woman-power. So she's the baddie, but how can one not root for her?
By contrast I find myself going against the author's intention by resenting the cool, imposed masculine organisation of Sarastro's realm, though if anything could make it more attractive it would be the profoundly resonant voice and tall, showman-like presence of John Savourin, half dictator, half Dr Strange. Here his world is shown as overtly fascistic in its arid paternalism and red uniforms, the nun-like female chorus clearly referencing The Handmaid's Tale. Are we really meant to see this as an ideal society? Well, no - this production cleverly relocates the moral emphasis by isolating Sarastro from the final celebration where Tamino and Pamina usher in a new age of freedom amid a general hugging of children and discarding of wimples as the old restraints break down.
The other innovation is to bookend the action with the unspoken contemporary story of a young girl who, like Pamina, is torn between warring parents. For first-time viewers this may be confusing, and I suspect it panders to the sad notion that a modern audience cannot simply sit still and listen to a purely orchestral overture. The child in question, however, on stage for most of the ensuing opera, proves to be a potent and eminently watchable observer of the action.
The symbolic side of the fable is handled with particularly well-imagined projections, in complete harmony with the fire and water trial themes, but there's no doubt that the audience warms most audibly to the comic elements. Gavan Ring presented a jolly, scruffy Papageno offering a very passable Irish stand-up act, while John Findon was utterly repulsive as Monostatos, the hypocritical, lust-maddened worm infesting the rational society. Long gone are traditional references to black harem guards, but much nastier is his habit of jiggling his junk through unsavoury underpants - a selfless and hilarious performance.
My only criticism is that the production is notably low on the birds that are a key feature of the original on several different levels, but meanwhile I'm sensing a new career possibility in working for the Queen of the Night. Her three ladies provided the perfect combination of humour, energy and martial dexterity - and who wouldn't want to dress like a light-sabre-wielding nun who's been working in an abattoir?
Opera North, Newcastle Theatre Royal (March 12 and 15, 2019)
© Gail-Nina Anderson, 2019
This review first appeared in Only in Newcastle.