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November 30, 2004

Truth, Friendship & Love - The Magic Flute at the Royal Academy Opera

Posted by David Conway

Mozart's The Magic Flute
Royal Academy Opera
conducted by Sir Colin Davis
at the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre
Royal Academy of Music, London
29th November 2004

In many ways, Mozart's The Magic Flute is closer in atmosphere to his other 'last opera', the 'opera seria' La Clemenza di Tito, than it is to the three masterpieces he wrote to the libretti of da Ponte. We cannot imagine any of the complex characters of Don Giovanni or Cos Fan Tutte strolling around the temple of Sarastro their intrigues and disguises depend on a type of self-consciousness unknown in his world; whereas the emblematic figures of Tamino and Pamina could well fit in somewhere in the schematic plot and amongst the cardboard characters of Tito. Indeed, The Magic Flute as a whole is in its way even more formulaic than Tito. Not only are its characters wooden and its plot full of gaping holes, but we lack here, for example, the interplay between orchestra and stage that allows Mozart to give depth or ironic comment in his other late operas: think, for example, of the wonderful woodwind phrases and minor harmonies that inflect the trio Soave sia il vento in Cos with genuine pain. In the Flute, everything is on the surface.

And yet it can still be more genuinely affecting than any of the da Ponte operas, for all their ingenuity and assurance. If da Ponte and Mozart show us one aspect of the Enlightenment, the relativity of morality and judgement which still disturbs society today, Schikaneder, the librettist of the Flute and fellow-Freemason of Mozart, shows us its paradoxical concomitant, the belief in some standards and certainties. "What can we say now?" quavers Papageno, as Sarastro approaches. "The truth", replies Pamina sternly, "even if it's incriminating" ("wr sie auch Verbrechen"). And Tamino, declaring to Sarastro's priest that he has been brought to their temple by "friendship and love" vows that he is prepared to fight for these, even to death. In a truthful performance, this innocence and conviction, reinforced by Mozart's splendid and simple music, can hardly fail to move us fallen sophisticates who have lost these qualities.

Such a performance I enjoyed at the Royal Academy of Music. Over the last few years the Royal Academy Opera, with its orchestra and cast of students, has produced the three da Ponte operas conducted by Sir Colin Davis and directed by John Copley and they have now completed their 'cycle'. This production of the 'Flute' (in English, using Andrew Porter's translation) did not seek to astonish by elaborate stagecraft or modish reinterpretation, but succeeded by setting before us, to high professional standards, the score and spirit of Mozart.

Under Davis's baton, and to his nicely-judged tempi, the orchestra provided a fine support to the cast. I shall be surprised, and disappointed, if we do not presently hear Jane Harrington (Pamina) on our major stages. Singing is apparently a late choice in her career, as she began as an actress, but her switch is a wise choice. Her lament, after Tamino (a lyrical performance by Michael McBride) has apparently rejected her, was one of the high points of the evening. Equally memorable is the rumbustious pantomime performance, and clear and pleasing baritone, of Viktor Rud as Papageno, whose timely Ukrainian accent also gave a nice edge to his spoken routines. Robert Winslade Anderson as Sarastro had a thoroughly convincing grasp of the range of his part, unusual in a bass so young. Amongst the secondary roles I noted Whitaker Mills as a Speaker of gravitas and Rebecca Bottone as an engaging crone, materialising into an Essex-girl Papagena.

The involvement of both the senior and the newer generations of British music in this enterprise gives of course an extra edge of interest and satisfaction. I follow all the Royal Academy Opera productions with both musical pleasure and no little patriotic pride, and I urge all readers to do the same.

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Real love is truth. Truth emanates from the heart.

Posted by: Lamar Cole at January 17, 2006 09:54 PM
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