The Magic Flute – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Librettist: Glyn Maxwell

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Director: Valentina Ceschi

Reviewer: James Garrington

Opera Up Close may have moved on from their roots performing in tiny pub theatres, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve distanced themselves from their audience. They pride themselves on producing accessible new versions of classic opera, and The Magic Flute is certainly no exception. Forget any ideas you may have about the plot because it has been almost entirely thrown away and replaced by a story that bears only vague similarities to the original, with the familiar characters but often in new roles.

It’s set around a shady nightclub called Queen of the Night, where you find the usual crowds of party-goers inside, and beggars outside. When Tamino gets chosen by The Queen of the Night, his girlfriend Pamina falls out with him and, in bed later, they start to have parallel dreams about what happened. In his dream, he is a Prince out to rescue a damsel in distress, but in hers, he is a darker character, selfish and callous. As they drift between dreams and reality, Papageno, a happy-go-lucky character with a penchant for posting selfies and in need of a girlfriend, wanders between their dreams on his quest for love.

Performed by a cast of just six with the resultant role-doubling, and with two different versions of Tamino, it’s fair to say that the plot isn’t that easy to follow. What there is though, is some great singing – sometimes up close – and a lot of comedy and fun. Gone is the character of Monastatos, and with him has gone the sexual abuse which, along with the racism issues, makes his inclusion very difficult in modern times. Instead, we have the much softer Dark Tamino, and a comic Papageno, with a light, modern new version of the libretto written by Glyn Maxwell.

As you would expect, the all the cast are in good voice. Cliff Zammit Stevens (Tamino) is a charming though slightly stupid, out-of-his-depth Prince, and Susie Buckle gives a good performance as an angry but ultimately forgiving Pamina. Luci Briginshaw’s Queen of the Night is flamboyant, complete with sunglasses and a minder, and even though she doesn’t always quite manage to hit the top notes spot-on, her big aria is a delight to listen to regardless. The most memorable performance surely comes from Tom Stoddart as Papageno, who has been written a delight of a comedy role in this version. Snapping pictures on his mobile phone and selfies with the audience, his duet with Papagena (Felicity Buckland) doing online dating has to go down as one of the moments of genius in a very inventive production.

Despite the changes to the plot, Mozart’s score is pretty much all here and works well, even though performed on some very unusual instruments. Full marks here to the orchestra of four, complete with electric guitar and bass, and Alex Beetschen’s arrangement. The rotating set by Emma Bailey works well both as a nightclub exterior and as different interiors, and it’s beautifully lit by Zoe Spurr, creating the right atmosphere for each scene and masking the inevitable movement behind.

The story may be muddled, but the whole thing is often great fun and everyone gets their happy ending. It’s worth seeing if only for the sheer inventiveness, wonderful score and extremely funny moments.

Reviewed on 12 May 2018 and on tour  | Image: Christopher Tribble

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Confusing but fun

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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