Best, Jonathan


Magic FluteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute

Scottish Opera, 2012 | Ekhart Wycik, Sir Thomas Allen, Nicky Spence, Claire Watkins, Rachel Hynes, Louise Collett, Richard Burkhard, Mari Moriya, Laura Mitchell, Jonathan Best, Peter Van Hulle | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 1 December 2012

If you want to, you can consider The Magic Flute to be a complex work, and with all the qualities that make up the complex personality and musicianship of Mozart placed within it, it most certainly is a work of incredible richness and variety. Written however with Emanuel Schikaneder as a popular Singspiel, what Die Zauberflöte should be above all else however is witty, charming, funny and entertaining. It has a serious side of course, and a meaningful message to put across - and it does get a little bogged down in solemnity on occasion - but it’s the means by which those ideas are put across that is essential to the brilliance of the work. Comedy, in The Magic Flute, proves to be a much more effective means of getting that across. And music - but I’ll come to that as well.

The light-hearted side of Mozart in Die Zauberflöte can often be undervalued and underrepresented, but the Scottish Opera’s production - seen here in Belfast at the end of the tour on 1st December - gets the balance just about right. That’s a tricky balance to maintain in this work. How, for example, do you account for all the mysticism, the Masonic initiation rituals and grand solemn ceremonies that undoubtedly underpin most of the enlightened ideals that make up the fabric of The Magic Flute, while at the same time making it accessible and entertaining to a modern audience? How do you reconcile the Tamino and the Papageno? Mozart does the hard bit through his remarkable music, showing love to be the most ennobling and life-affirming act that any human being is capable of, but finding a way to make that work in a setting that accounts for all the trappings of the Masonic rituals is a more difficult prospect for a modern production.

Directing for the Scottish Opera, Sir Thomas Allen’s idea isn’t a bad one, setting the story up as a kind of fairground show in a Victorian “Steampunk” setting with gentlemen in stovepipe hats, operating pulleys and clockwork mechanical constructions. Visually it’s a delight, creating the right kind of ‘magical’ background that accounts for freaks and animals, smoke and mirrors, but the steam engineering also feels utterly appropriate to the idea of human ingenuity, progress and man’s ceaseless endeavours to better himself. It doesn’t go all the way to differentiate and clarify the natures of the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, or establish where dragon slaying fits into the picture, but it’s more important to provide a suitably “fun” setting that better engages the audience and allows the story to flow in a relatively consistent manner.

And who better to engage with the audience than Papageno? Well, the Scottish Opera played an interesting trick in making Tamino a regular member of the audience also, picked out sitting in the Circle by a spotlight during the overture and invited to join in the fun on the stage. Tamino can be a little too earnest a figure to entirely identify with, so some pantomime-style banter with the audience on the part of both Tamino and Papageno - and engaging performances from Nicky Spence and Richard Burkhard - helped break down those barriers between the characters and the audience, which is really what The Magic Flute is all about. It’s about showing what noble sentiments and actions any man is capable of, whether Prince or fool. Or indeed woman.

Much scorn is poured upon womankind in The Magic Flute, no doubt in line with Masonic tradition - but Mozart’s truly enlightened attitude (and I’m sure his love for women) shows that they also have an important part in directing the progress of all mankind on to better things. If there’s any doubt about the work’s intentions towards women, one need only listen to the remarkable music that Mozart scores for the female figures. The masculine characteristics are straight, direct and measured in both their nobility and, in the case of Papageno, playfulness, but the women bring a wildness, an unpredictability and a sense of abandon - most notably in the case of the Queen of the Night’s coloratura and range, but also in the sentiments that plunge Pamina from the heights of love to the depths of despair within the span of minutes, a descent that was handled well in this performance by Laura Mitchell.

All of this is part of what The Magic Flute is about, so in addition to making it look engaging and entertaining, it needs to musically take you on this journey, and on all accounts the Scottish Opera’s production was sympathetic to the rhythms and moods of the piece. There were a few curious lapses in tempo that, for example, drained the intensity both from the Queen of the Night’s entrance and from Sarastro’s grave pronouncements. If they were to give the performer’s room to approach the demands of their ranges, it may have been necessary, but Mari Moriya and Jonathan Best didn’t seem to have too many problems in these tricky roles. All of the main performers then managed to strike that balance exceptionally well, matching the tone and sentiments of Mozart’s writing, and they were well supported by the rest of the cast, with a strong trio in the three Ladies, but also the exceptionally beautiful harmonies produced by the three Boys for this performance.

If there were any minor concerns about the limitations of the fairground setting or in the singers meeting the exceptionally high standards of the work’s vocal demands, it’s more the spirit and the heart of Mozart’s music that is essential to getting the wonder of The Magic Flute across, and the Scottish Opera’s heart was in the right place here.

IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.