FamilyNorth East & YorkshireOperaReview

Whistle Stop Opera: The Magic Flute – Opera North at Gateway East, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Writer/Director: John Savournin

Opera is often assumed to be an elitist occupation, an assumption not totally without foundation in many cases, but Opera North sets out to disprove it in many different ways. One is Whistle Stop Opera, jolly small-scale informal performances aimed chiefly at children. This year one of the performances in the courtyard in front of the company offices in Gateway East was specifically for refugees and their families. At the end of Refugee Week, what could be more appropriate for a Theatre of Sanctuary? Leeds is rightly proud of having two companies thus designated: Leeds Playhouse and Opera North.

Whistle Stop Opera has moved from just being a shortened version of an opera for three or four soloists to being an alternative take on the opera from the fertile imagination of John Savournin. The Magic Flute is, in part, a fairy tale already and fits happily into the concept.

Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina are happily married, but suddenly, walking in the woods, he notices how quiet everything is. Papageno, bird-catcher to the Queen of the Night, also finds there are no longer any birds to catch. The great fires that are raging in the next kingdom are to blame. After a visit to the wise Sarastro a fierce dragon is overcome by love and all is well.

The climate change message is clear enough – “Don’t be an ostrich!” is the message – but its fun, too. The characters are noble or silly or both, the dragon is very colourful and not really frightening, and there’s even a cute little rabbit.

The three singers all engage the young audience directly and even get a healthy proportion of them dancing along with the magic bells – the dragon does, too! Nicholas Watts (Tamino) declaims his fatuously self-satisfied rhymes as though he believes them, Tim Nelson is a confiding Papageno and a fairly distinguished Sarastro and Emily Loftus has the most fun of all as a loving Pamina, a Queen of the Night straight out of The Only Way is Essex, but with added coloratura – and the voice of the rabbit!

In the midst of all this the musical performance, accompanied by the wonderfully adept accordion of Milos Milivojevic, is unfailingly excellent. Miked up against high winds and passing traffic, the voices have real presence. The opening chorus in praise of the Prince (music borrowed from Sarastro’s court) has astonishing impact from just three voices. Soon Watts is giving a beautiful account of Tamino’s aria in praise of Pamina’s beauty, Dies Bildnis, and Nelson is charming the birds out of the trees as Der Vogelfanger.

An extra treat for lovers of The Magic Flute is admiring Savournin’s ingenuity in raiding the original. Those two numbers come more or less in their normal place with pretty much the same subject, but generally old friends are recognised in new forms, with the child-like duet, Pa-pa-pa-, turned into a triumphant finale and the dragon, normally a first scene victim, showing up to cause all kinds of havoc.

Best of all, the Whistle Stop version reminds us that The Magic Flute, whatever else it is, is the nearest thing to a musical that Mozart wrote!

Touring until August 7th 2021

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. 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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