Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Flute retains the magic

Last night I was at “The Magic Flute”. I very nearly wasn’t, because The Crazy Intern, with whom I was going, got us totally lost on the way. This was my second experience of being navigated by someone using a hand-held GPS device, and it was no more inspiring than the first. I am worried when even machines can get dyslexic left/right confusion. Trust these things no further than you can throw them, that’s my advice.

Since we were trying to find St John’s Smith Square, which is in the middle of that horribly featureless Westminster hinterland of giant offices near Victoria Station, navigation by normal landmarks and features like pubs and shops was tricky, too. And it was raining. So we missed the overture (perhaps not the end of the world, as it was a piano version) and got soaked instead. We arrived just in time to scuttle into some seats at the back as the serpent – who looked like a giant, legless, red-eyed papier-maché Snoopy – emerged from its burrow to menace Tamino.

It’s easy to laugh at a small-scale production that sets out, with a tiny cast, minimal budget and no orchestra, to convey the same degree of drama and delight as a performance at Covent Garden or the ENO can accomplish. Oyster Opera apparently spend most of their time doing street concerts, wedding singing and light-hearted performances for corporate events. They are a very small outfit indeed, and it showed. Luckily they were doing “Magic Flute” whose crazy fairy-tale lack of logic can take a fair amount of added peculiarity without caving in under the weight.

A lot of the time, the director had had the sense to play to the company’s strengths, in particular the youth and energy of several of the performers, and to make a virtue of necessity where some of the problems were concerned. You’re trying to put on an opera that needs eighteen soloists, a large chorus and a full orchestra, and you have a total cast of twelve including the pianist? Then you thank god your pianist is excellent, and you double everyone else up, left, right and centre. The final chorus sounds a bit thin when sung by the six characters who can remotely rationally be on stage at the time? The heck with it; you rewrite the plot to have Sarastro forgive the Queen of Night, Monostatos, and the Three Ladies, and then they can all stay and sing, too.

The doubled and trebled casting produced some impressive quick-changes; the Three Ladies must have spent every free minute stripping and changing costumes, as each of them also doubled as one of the Three Boys and as an acolyte at Sarastro’s temple. Monostatos and the Speaker of the Temple also appeared as the Two Priests, the Two Armed Men (unarmed, in this instance), and as the wielders of the puppet birds pursued by Papageno at his first entrance.

There were some pretty major weaknesses, of course, but they were the sort you expect when you go to hear twelve people doing a touring production on a shoestring in a church. The set wobbled. The lighting was poor to the point of stygian. Some of the acting was decidedly sixth-form. The hollow stage platform was pretty noisy underfoot. Sarastro nearly lost part of his costume at one point when it became snagged on the set. A production at my brother’s school years ago managed a more effective staging of the trials by fire and water.

More seriously, two of the cast were completely out of their depth vocally. I won’t name names; I don’t like sniping at people whose abilities fall this far short of their ambitions. If they know who they are, then they know they were over-parted and should have stepped back gracefully, and they’re probably pretty depressed about it already. If they don’t know who they are, then there’s no saving them anyway since they haven’t the self-awareness to make the grade even if their voices could have taken them there (which they almost certainly won’t).

To compensate for having to wince a bit when these particular individuals were on stage, there were no other real weak links. The rest of the singers were good or better than good. We got three good Ladies, a Queen of Night who romped through the grandstanding hissy fit of “Die Hölle Rache”, a charming Papageno, a terrific Speaker/First Priest/First Armed Man, and an excellent Tamino from Paul Hopwood. I had started off remembering that long-ago school production and wondering if this would beat it for clunkiness (believe me, a school production can be pretty damn clunky even if your darling bro is one of the Priests lumbering about embarrasedly onstage); it didn’t, largely on the strength of the good parts of the cast. That and the pianist, who gave a truly heroic performance. I would never have expected a single piano to do such a magnificent job of replacing the orchestra. Much kudos to that man!

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