Opera with a smile on its face

flyig fish bike

Now it's not every day you see a flying fish bike held up by a balloon ridden here by Katrina Nimmo, Jenny Bianco and Rachel Mills who were a delight as the three boys. Pictures: Robert Workman

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


WHEN an opera starts off with a giant lobster, includes a pedal powered flying fish and a chorus including a rhinoceros, stag and monkey and there is no Parisian garret or windswept battlements in sight, it is a fair bet this is likely to be a fun evening.

And so it proves. Dominic Cooke’s surreal production has just celebrated its 10th birthday and still has a freshness and, let’s be honest, enough silliness about it to make it entertaining.

Mozart’s singspiel, opera with singing and dialogue, was a baroque fairytale, a light-hearted comedy in Emanuel Schikaneder’s original libretto, heavy wthe maidsith Freemasonary overtones with Sarastro’s mysterious brotherhood and its rituals. It delighted 18th century audiences and contains references and philosophical themes which are perhaps lost on audiences today.

But this translation by Jeremy Sams is a much lighter, fun affair with Papageno its main jester which sees Daniel Grice mixing slapstick with a fine baritone voice.

Camilla Roberts, Máire Flavin and Emma Carrington as the three amorous maids

It is a wonderful comic role, a real audience pleaser, written by Schikaneder for himself for the 1791 premiere. It is a part with all the best lines, funny one liners and more arias, three, than any other part. Schikaneder wasn’t daft. He made sure he was the star.

Grice, looking like Harpo Marx, displays fine comic timing in the part as a foil to the more serious Tamino, the lovelorn prince, sung by tenor Benjamin Hulett.

It is a strange thing, but even when an opera is sung in English the surtitles are still useful, but they are hardly needed at all when Hulett sings, such is the clarity of his voice and his diction.

There was impressive singing too from Elizabeth Watts as the kidnapped Pamina, daughter of Queen of the Night – the forces of darkness in case you were wondering – and Sarastro, the bad guy who is really the good guy leading the forces of enlightenment.

Elizabeth, who has a first class honours degree in archaeology incidentally, has a wonderfully clear and seemingly effortless soprano and her control is something to marvel at, amply illustrated beautifully in her act II tragic aria, Ah, I feel it is gone, when Tamino cannot speak to her because of his vow of silence as part of his trial of his virtue. She really is a fine sarastroBritish soprano to be cherished.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, with a black train filling half the stage, has the unenviable task of singing two of Mozart’s most difficult arias, not that you would know it from her excellent delivery although you get the feeling she was happier singing than speaking in the role. They were written for Mozart’s sister-in-law Josefa Hofer who had a remarkable range hitting high F with ease.

Scott Wilde as Sarastro . . . with the WNO chorus brotherhood getting under his feet

On the side of the gods was Scott Wilde as Sarastro, a commanding figure on stage. He is a big lad with a big, deep voice to match, a bass that shakes the air.

There was good support from the delightful Camilla Roberts, Máire Flavin and Emma Carrington as the three maids and Claire Hampton as Papagena while Howard Kirk is quite disturbing as the sexual predator Monostatos, managing to convey a cold, flaccid and clammy presence whenever he crept in.

Conductor Simon Phillippo brought a lively pace out of the always excellent WNO orchestra playing with a clear, light touch which suits Mozart’s score which always seems aimed at showing off the skills of musicians and singers.

Julian Crouch’s set design with more doors than a B&Q showroom set with clouds and night sky in turn, along with Kevin Pollard’s costumes, from lions to the orange bowler hatted, booted and suited brotherhood, haven’t dated at all and the brotherhood popping their heads up from holes in the floor, like a mob of curious meerkats still raises a smile.

And that is the thing about the whole opera, it is fun and it raises a laugh. It might not be dramatic or spectacular but you will go home happy with a smile on your face.

Roger Clarke


The Welsh National Opera perform a new opera Peter Pan on Thursday (11 June), The Magic Flute again on Friday (12 June) and a new production of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande on Saturday (13 June) 


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