EIF: The Magic Flute
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
When actor Neil John Gibson bustled onto the platform with a gag in the local vernacular about the buses at the start of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, as well as laughter in the capacity house there was detectable bristling in some of the more expensive seats.
There is, however, nothing tokenistic about a commitment to access that runs through new director Nicola Benedetti’s first Edinburgh Festival programme, so hackles will have risen in vain at the pantomimic elements in the presentation of this most problematic of operas. That included baritone Gyula Orendt’s Papageno throwing sweets to the front row of the stalls as well as Gibson channelling the spirit of Gerard Kelly or Andy Gray in some of his delivery.
It certainly leavened some of the darkness in a story that includes sexual assault and attempted suicide alongside racism and masonic ritual – The Magic Flute is not without its challenges for modern audiences. The first of what are to be annual concerts of Mozart operas by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO, this was a bilingual version, readers Thomas Quastoff and Gibson working with a new English text by Sir David Pountney, and sung in German, with English supertitles.
Seated to the side, Quastoff and Gibson brought a range of voices to their contributions, while the singers were simply the high quality cast that we have come to expect of Festival concert operas at the Usher Hall. Tenor Ilker Arcayurek was an engaging Tamino from the start, who seemed as attached to his magical flute as he was to Julia Bullock’s rather serious Pamina, her characterisation perhaps deliberately in opposition to the playful charm of the Three Ladies, local hero Catriona Morison flanked by Elizabeth Watts and Claudia Huckle.
Of Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night – a role she has sung all over the world in all the best houses – there can be only the highest praise. Quite how she can stride out on to the stage and turn on an instrument operating at that pitch and power is beyond comprehension.
With Brindley Sherratt an imperious Sarastro, there was strength across the whole cast, Pountney even lightening the character of the darkest role, Peter Hoare’s Monostatos with the prop of a cricket bat – a daft visual pun on the sport’s use of the term “guard” that probably stumped as many in the audience as caught it.
With three youngsters singing more of the three boys’ music than is often heard in full productions, the other star vocal ingredient was the SCO Chorus, Emelyanychev ensuring that some of the finest music in the score – at the end of Act 1 and after Pamina’s aria in Act 2 – was given the fullest expression.
Ultimately, and despite the stellar competition onstage, this was the ebullient conductor’s show. His fingerprints were everywhere – on the casting, cueing the singers, in his superb relationship with the players and on the keyboard in front of him, where he added a few ornaments of his own to Mozart’s music.
This was a Magic Flute full of magical moments, and given its occasional emphasis on what used to be called “the battle of the sexes” suggested that the differently problematic Cosi fan tutte might be a good choice for next year – there were a few in this cast who would be good in that too.
Picture by Andrew Perry: Rachel Redmond as Papagena and Gyula Orendt as Papageno