It’s good they’ve gone for an update after a decade or so. Technology has changed, and a show that always relies essentially on some kind of stage effects has to benefit from imaginative image projection (and a few light sabers). How else do you show ordeals by fire and water – and even the monster at the start (though that was reassuringly physical, too)?
Director James Brining’s update goes much further than that, though. He sees the whole thing through a child’s eyes – a little girl being put to bed, in a silent prologue acted out during the overture, and then (presumably) dreaming the rest. In the room behind are her father’s grown-up friends, gathered around the dinner table, and a number of them are reincarnated as characters in the story. That’s not a new idea (it’s been used a few times for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, for instance), but it’s a good one for a fantasy tale such as this.
Ah, but there’s more to it than a happy family gathering – because this dad is estranged from her mum, who arrives unexpectedly and demands access rights. Who is the daughter to side with: the mother who bore her or the father who has power over her? That becomes the underlying interpretation of the story … as her nanny morphs into Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, who’s held captive by Sarastro and his seemingly impregnable company of high-minded disciples. Will her Prince (Tamino) come to find her, and will love conquer all?
I have to say that Sarastro and his mates do not come out of things very well in this version. Virtue and stedfastness (not to mention feistiness, as exemplified by the blood-spattered Three Ladies) are qualities of the female characters, not the men, and the masonic values mouthed by the Brotherhood emerge as sheer hypocrisy. When John Savournin (as Sarastro) commends Tamino’s worth because he is a prince … and then also because ‘he is a man!’ a pause before he says the line upends it, and every woman in the audience chuckles to herself.
John Savournin was suffering from a cold on opening night in Salford and asked for our understanding (he sang very effectively all the same) but his casting as Sarastro, and Dean Robinson’s as the Speaker of the community, was a move away from the tradition of heavy, authoritative voices for these roles and made them fallible human beings. Gavan Ring, as an Irish-sounding Parageno, though, was a lovable and attractive male figure (phew!) and one of the stars of the evening. The other was Samantha Hay, whose Queen of the Night was imperious and vocally stunning, as she should be.
Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) and Kang Wang (Tamino) both have lovely voices – the latter known to RNCM operagoers already, of course – and were never less than a pleasure to hear.
It’s a strong company effort all round, with notable singing in every role, and the children’s contributions (including the assured voices of the Three Boys) were excellent.
Robert Howarth conducted with lively tempi and some very detached articulations to give the score plenty of punch, so no complaints in that area.
The Brining version of the story, though, refreshingly of the moment as it is, does leave a few questions hanging. Does Monostatos have to be re-interpreted as quite so repulsively libidinous? And did there need to be such clear visual hints in Colin Richmond’s costume design that the Brotherhood are precursors of the Nazis, with a company of nuns thrown in? Conformism has many faces, and those are not the only ones we know.
Gavan Ring as Papageno in Opera North's The Magic Flute. Credit Alasdair Muir