Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adaptation: John Savournin and David Eaton
Director: John Savournin
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Opera companies have long sought ways to attract newcomers, pioneering the concept of live cinema screenings and finding ways to dissolve the boundaries between performers and audience with up-close shows in small venues. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is one of the most accessible with its tale of true love in enchanted lands, and, like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a good place to start if you’re new to opera.
As part of its regular opera strand, the tiny King’s Head Theatre’s new production is set in a fairy-tale jungle filled with Amazon tribespeople, wicked queens, gods and the odd talking snake all sent to challenge and guide the hero Tamino as he sets out to find true love. The Queen of the Night gives Tamino a quest to save her daughter Pamina from the apparently evil Sarastro who is holding her captive in his jungle community. Promised marriage to Pamina, he meets the bird-catcher Papageno who also longs for love but agrees to guide Tamino through the jungle. But once they’ve located the community, things are not what Tamino expected and he has to prove his worth to win the hand of the Princess.
Director John Savournin’s production takes place in a charming grotto that transforms the King’s Head back room into a stunning forest scene with floor to ceiling vines and canopies that sits the audience in the centre of the action. Designed beautifully by Simon Bejer, assisted by Jessie Hutchin and Jefferson Miranda, there is exquisite attention to detail and a thoroughly realised concept that unites set, costumes and props in a South America meets Boy’s Own Adventure meets fairyland world.
At every stage the design entirely supports the action, uniting with Nicholas Holdridge’s lighting to create memorable moments as sunlight shines through the leaves in times of hope, or as reflections of mystical voices calling to the protagonists. It keeps the audience entirely focused on the action, and never breaks the spell.
Savournin and David Eaton’s adaptation is as witty as it is accomplished, finely balancing the emotional depth of the love stories with jester-like characters such as Papageno, but it also has plenty of advice about the rejection of superstition in favour of knowledge and understanding which make this adaptation as relevant as it is entertaining. A little less is invested in the central relationship between Tamino and Pamina than is entirely credible – they decide they’re in love before they meet and when they do are prepared to die for each other instantly – but the whole thing is such a treat that you can suspend your disbelief.
Star of the show is Matthew Kellett’s Papageno, a finely balanced comic creation that doesn’t become too clownish and keeps the audience equally invested in his emotional arc, while Kellett tackles the music faultlessly. Hannah Sawle’s Queen of the Night is most vocally impressive with an operatic range that is extraordinary up close and it’s a shame she only has a couple of scenes.
While Robin Bailey’s Tamino is a likeable lead his voice tends towards musical rather than opera, and although he’s hardly Indiana Jones, he projects plenty of gung-ho spirit as the hero overcoming his fears to win the girl. Although their acting is a little weak, Julian Debreuil and Emily Jane Thomas’s vocals are emotive as Sarastro and Pamina, with Thomas performing despite illness. Although most of the lead roles are shared during the run, superb support is given by Jennifer Begley, Sarah Champion and Polly Leech as the three ladies who guide Tamino, while operating an excellent array of puppets.
This is a vivid and colourful interpretation of Mozart’s most watchable opera and one which the company has clearly worked hard to perfect. The language has a lovely clarity, which means you can hear virtually every word in this fun and affectionate translation, so the 135-minute run time including an interval flies by, and with so much detail it’s a pleasure to watch.
Runs until 3 June 2017 | Image: Bill Knight