By Helena Snider
Performances in Durham are often of such high standard they could pass as professional productions. DOE’s The Magic Flute easily falls into this category; and not only that, but it was deeply original and insightful production too – a genuinely fascinating take on one of the most famous operas ever written.
Despite being one of Mozart’s best-loved operas, the plot is rather convoluted and long-winded. In essence, it opens with Tamino, a handsome prince, who is lost in a distant land and found by three ladies, attendants of the Queen of the Night. Papageno later enters, and the two befriend one another. Tamino and Pamina meet one another and fall in love instantly. Sarastro imposes tests on Tamino in order for him to prove and test his commitment. Various difficulties ensue.
Modern audiences often find the strong elements of misogyny and the casual racism in The Magic Flute problematic. The opera is a product of time and elements of it can feel heavily dated, making a recreation of the original difficult today. Luckily, the director Alabama Jackson developed a tone of irony throughout the whole production, highlighting the absurdity of the dated and prejudiced attitudes associated with the production, rather than playing into any clichéd tropes herself.
Indeed, Jackson’s creative vision was one of the most impressive aspects of the whole production. Some might argue that the use of video footage (filmed by Tristan Ashley), and animations (created by Lewis Martin), felt over the top or gratuitous, but I felt that this was really her entire point: the contrast between high-minded and (sometimes) self-involved characters with comic animations created an extra layer of depth. It also helped to demystify the serious and elitist notions that we have come to associate with ‘high art’.
The spoken dialogue between music aided our understanding the plot. The cast comprised able actors without exception. Moreover, the contemporary setting highlighted the universality of the opera’s themes: love, loss and passion, and added a further sense of accessibility.
The musical direction was absolutely spectacular, and Josh Ridley must be commended. The absolute standout singer was Rowena Ashby in her role as The Queen of the Night, an enormously difficult role owing both to the technical difficulty but also for how well-known it is; it is her character who sings the notoriously tricky Der Hölle Rache. Ashby pulled it off with professional aplomb.
Robert Singleton was a brilliantly choice of actor to play Tamino. He had a strong stage presence and was technically skilled vocally. Will Hirtzel gave a suitably grave and commanding performance as Sarastro. The trio of ladies (Emer Acton, Amy Porter and James Mactavish) who opened the production alongside Singleton, were absolutely mesmerising.
Peter Dunn as Papageno was clearly the audience’s favourite, with his endearing charm and comedic talent regularly eliciting a number of laughs. Pamina (Emily Barnes) is a sometimes tired and clichéd character, but Barnes imbued her with some personality and she was one of the technically strongest singers. Unfortunately, although Robert Singleton and Emily Barnes were highly impressive individually, the two lacked chemistry. Cameron Gergett played Monostatos uncomfortably but appropriately – given the evil nature of his character, and he too had a strong command of the stage.
There were very few weak points. There was perhaps only one moment when I was unable to suspend my disbelief, which occurred during a slap that was obviously fake. Equally, I felt that The Queen of the Night could perhaps have lowered her hand which clutched her phone in order to be able to raise her head during her first song and project further. But these are very minor quibbles.
All in all, this was the most impressive productions – technically, acting-wise, enthusiasm-wise – I have ever seen in Durham. The Durham Opera Ensemble ought to be proud of such a deeply compelling and musically impressive production, with a truly unique and innovative edge compared to most in student productions. I just hope that more innovative and accessible operas, such as this, are here to stay in Durham.
Photograph: DOE prod team