birdman and prince 

Kezia Bienek as a lady in waiting, Neal Davies as Papageno with Thando Mjandan as Tamino and Nazan Fikret and Chloe Barnett-Jones as the other two Queen’s ladies. Pictures: Craig-Fuller

The Magic Flute

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Perhaps The Magic Mini Light Sabre and Light up Bells would have been a harder sell but that is pretty much what you get in this rewritten, reimagined fun version of Mozart’s somewhat quirky opera.

I must admit I am not really a fan of the original which has a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, that is, to put it mildly, weird, and you can throw dull into that mix as well. We have the queen of the night, a prince, Tamino, attacked by a serpent, a bird catcher, a hero with a magic flute, a high priest kidnapping a princess and running a cult and it’s all wrapped up in Freemasonary.

It opened in Schikaneder's theatre in Vienna in 1791 to great acclaim, although, to be fair, times were a lot simpler then. It was Mozart’s last triumph. He was to die two months later at the age of 35, ironically, trying and failing to complete his Requiem.

The Magic Flute has become a stock in trade of opera companies but that is perhaps down to Mozart’s music. Without that, with a score by a lesser composer, I suspect it would be the unlamented and long forgotten flute opera.

Hardly the stuff to attract a new generation of opera fans perhaps, so enter director Daisy Evans who takes the opera by the scruff of the neck with an English translation full of fun and an accessible storyline you can actually follow, set around Mozart’s splendid score.

SSo instead of a high priest we have a royal  husband and wife arguing about whether their daughter Pamina, sung with a pure, powerful soprano by April Koyejo-Audiger, should be brought up in the dreams of night or the logic of day.

The outcome is mum, the Queen of the Night, leaves her husband the king and whisks her daughter away to teach her the ways of the night, so the King has his daughter kidnapped to educate her in the logic of the day leaving us with a palace of day and another of night. Okay, it’s still weird, the logic and education on offer in the day school not extending to astro physics, but at least we can follow this one.

As for the serpent, well Tamino, has just a dream, and three of the Queen’s ladies in waiting find him, with Nazan Fikret, Kezia Bienek and Claire Barnett-Jones all taking a shine to him, trying to get the other two to leave before giving up and all leaving together to find the Queen. Three fine voices which blend well together.

The story is all helped by a set from Loren Elstein which has a huge revolve as well as gliding and rotating blocks of steps and platforms that give a kaleidoscope of movement at every scene change, at times looking like a shot from Minecraft.

AAnd that is all enhanced with a lighting design from Jake Wiltshire that must have bought up every LED light in Cardiff, and indeed the whole of South Wales for a set that could have come from a video game, bright, full of changing colours, including flocks of glowing birds, and with a quite brilliant representation of the moon and its cold white light for a solo from Julia Sitovetsky as the Queen of the Night with her brilliant, clear soprano voice.


AlunRhys-Jenkins as Monostatos, the educator, with Kim Scopes, the Puppet Captain and Tom Stacy the Puppeteer and the who's a bony boy then skeleton

TThe costumes, presumable Elstein again, give us everything from Star Wars and Flash Gordon to The Crucible, The Wizard of Oz and even The Three Stooges – interest and variety wherever you looked.

The singing, as always with WNO, is superb with Neal Davies evelling in the role of Papageno, the night bird catcher, with a fine baritone and an equally fine sense of fun. He ends up on a rescue mission with Tamino but in truth, all he really wants is to be loved, so it is just as well Jenny Stafford is around as the always smiling day palace bird catcher Papagena to take him to her heart.

MMeanwhile back at the night and day dilemma, Pamina’s childhood friend Tamino, sung by Thando Mjandana, a tenor with a warm and pleasing voice, is charged with going on a rescue mission for the princess and is given a magic flute, which looks more like a light sabre, pocket size version, as protection.

Papageno is persuaded to go with him with a couple of bells on sticks, with the obligatory LEDS, that look like lollipops. And, as a sort of bonus, they also get three young ones, Sophie Williams, Carys Davies and Llinos Haf Jones to go with them as sort of minders, and seeing the pair of them, they are going to need all the help they can get.

So off they go to the palace of day ruled over by Sarastro, sung in a powerful, well controlled bass by Jonathan Lemalu, who suffers from the bane of bass lives, that the lower the register the more difficult enunciation becomes, and Lemalu goes remarkably deep.

Here in the palace we meet baritone Chuma Sijeqa as The Speaker, who lets us know what is going on and asks a few questions for good measure. Then there is the rather fussy Monostatos, the teacher, played by tenor Alun Rhys-Jenkins, who seems to be an expert on bird anatomy, cell by cell in fact, and has a rather large, and somewhat undead, avian skeleton as a visual aid.

There is a lovely moment when he is explaining his failure with Pamino to Sarastro and his monocle or lens or whatever it is on the end of a rod coming out from the top of his head, starts to revolve around his skull like a helicopter blade on a go slow.

We have tests, and trials, nothing too serious mind, and imprisonment with the palace of the Day security presumably having been outsourced to Fred Karno Inc, with guards Thomas Kinch and Laurence Cole more custard pie than custodian, adding to the fun.

BuBut it all works out in the end, in a sort of Cole Porter moment of Night and Day, taking the best bits of each and combining them with Tamino and Pamina living happily ever after in each other’s arms, with kingdoms reunited.

And throughout it all is the Mozart score played, as always, quite beautifully by the WNO Orchestra under conductor Frederick Brown, who was happily living every note and silently singing along.p>

Another given is the superb contribution of the magnificent WNO chorus.

At its heart though the opera has retained the spirit of the original, a story of friendship and love, and even one of unity that both sides of an argument, in this case symbolic night and day, can have some merit.

As Daisy Evans says in the programme, we are a country that sees opera as somehow posh and elitist, something for snobs and toffs, yet it is an art form which is mainstream in many of our European neighbours – almost as popular as pop in the likes of Italy.

Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti reached No 2 in the charts thanks to the World Cup and Italia 90, yet few of those who bought it or loved it could tell you it was from Puccini’s Turandot, and even fewer would have decided to see the opera it comes from, yet, to an extent Nessun Dorma is what opera is about, music telling a story, whether full of raw emotion as in the Turandot aria, or heartbreak, tragedy, love, romance - every human feeling, including, as at times here, fun.

Whether this version will appeal to the opera purist is an unknown but at least it is an accessible version, in English and with a set and design that will at least look familiar to a generation living in the social/multimedia age of video games. The music hasn’t changed even if the words and plot have – for the better some might say – in a version that provides an interesting, entertaining and enjoyable evening to witness a 200 year old opera arriving in the 21st century. To 05-05=23.

Roger Clarke



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