Schikaneder and Mozart
Clonter Opera Theatre, Cheshire
July 22-29, 2023; 3 hrs
Michael McCaffery’s take on The Magic Flute is an imaginative one. Directing for Clonter Opera, with Jessica Staton in charge of design, he and his team have found a way to present a piece that is meant to be a bit of a spectacular within the constraints of a small theatre, a smallish stage, a reduced orchestra and a small cast of singers, in some cases at the outset of their professional careers.
But it's still pretty spectacular: there’s thunder and lightning for one, and projection is used extremely effectively on a background set that takes it well, with a central door opening to reveal another world behind, backlit for impressive entrances. And the singing is also pretty spectacular.
Clonter’s whole ethos is to give a platform to up-and-coming opera singers, so they develop skills in performance they may not have found in formal training. Its musical director, Philip Sutherland, is a master of this and conducts with sure hands (applying them to the tinkling bells machine when needed, as Mozart himself might have done in 1791).
How do you get it all into the space and time available in Clonter’s rural Cheshire base near Jodrell Bank? McCaffery has retranslated the text, for one thing, so this was a world premiere of his version. The roles are cut to 11, by one doubling and turning the Three Boys into disembodied spirits seen as masks on staves and heard over the amplification system, as are the chorus parts at some points: everyone gets stuck in to sing the choruses on-stage when appropriate.
The score has been slightly truncated, too, but the 11-strong Clonter Sinfonia makes it sound bright and lively.
McCaffery and team make a virtue of necessity in a production concept that imagines we’re seeing a 1930s troupe of singers discovering an empty theatre. There are left-over props and costumes from a previous performance, and the performers make the best of them to do a show right there (as they say). As the overture plays we see their boss – cigar and swagger-staff in hand – leading them in along with his smarmy side-kick; they are to become Sarastro, the wise man of the traditional story, and the leering Monostatos, later.
After that the story proceeds very much as in the original. Many subtexts and reflections have been discovered in it over the years and you can’t reflect them all, but this sticks closely to the ideas dreamed up by Emanuel Schikaneder in the first place, though it soft-pedals the freemasonry symbolism, not a bad thing. It’s simply a tale of love and courage, seen both through the noble characters of Tamino and his beloved Pamina and the comic one of Papageno, with the classily-vindictive Queen of the Night and (apparently) all-knowing Sarastro as older figures opposing and testing them along the way.
The singers in this production are top-notch. Several have made good impressions at the Royal Northern College of Music or Clonter before, and it’s unfair to pick on one or two; all are developing, anyway. So here’s the line-up: Jack Roberts (Tamino), Jordan Harding (Papageno), Hannah O’Brien (Pamina), Louisa Stirland (the Queen of the Night), Naomi Rogers (First Lady and Papagena), Laura Fleur (Second Lady), Sarah Luttrell (Third Lady), Fionn O hAlmhain (Sarastro), Adam Jarman (Speaker), and Henry Ngan (Monostatos).
Info and tickets here