Scottish Opera


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.

UnderworldJacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

NI Opera & Scottish Opera, 2011 | Derek Clark, Oliver Mears, Rory Bremner, Nicholas Sherratt, Jane Harrington, Máire Flavin, Ross McInroy, Brendan Collins, Daire Halpin, Gavin Ring, Maire Claire Breen, Olivia Ray, Christopher Diffey | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 31 October 2011

Written in 1858, Offenbach’s first full-length comic operetta was by no means intended to be merely just a retelling of the classic Greek myth, not indeed even just a satire on the use of the subject in so many operas, but it was also intended to be a satire of the times. Who better then to take on the necessary task of updating it for our own times (it’s hardly going to be meaningful to parody 19th century Parisian society), while retaining all the risqué humour and the political edge than impressionist comedian and satirist Rory Bremner for this joint production between Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera of Orpheus in the Underworld (’Orphée aux enfers’).

You might think that celebrity marriages, society scandal and gossip were only a recent phenomenon introduced by tabloid newspapers and the publication of ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’, but no, it was clearly as much a subject of interest in Offenbach’s time as it doubtless was long before that, and a subject just as worthy of sending up. Here, Eurydice is enjoying life as a WAG, her husband the celebrity musician Orpheus (although she has a severe allergic reaction to his music), and Bremner’s witty working of the libretto captures all the glamour as well as the vacuousness of the celebrity lifestyle. Even though both Eurydice and Orpheus can’t stand each other any longer and are cheating on each other, they are concerned about Public Opinion (a character in the opera), and about what a divorce would do to their reputations.

Underworld

Unfortunately, Eurydice’s gym instructor with whom she is having an affair is not Aristaeus, as she believes, but Pluto, the God of the Underworld in disguise. The collusion between Pluto and Orpheus isn’t really brought out in this production, but in any case the end result is the same – an unfortunate “accident” that kills Eurydice, allowing Pluto to whisk her off to Hell. Public Opinion is not impressed, although Orpheus doesn’t seem too concerned, and she insists that he set matters right and appeal to the Gods on Olympus. They’re a decadent bunch but rather fed-up with the high-life and the meaningless little affairs that they’ve been carrying on, so the idea of slumming it in Hell on a rescue mission to recover Eurydice sounds like fun to them. Apollo, who can’t keep it in his pants, as we all know, also sees the chance of upstaging an old rival by stealing Eurydice for himself right from under Pluto’s nose and on his own turf.

Off they go, partying in the Underworld, dancing the Can-Can (the famous music of the Moulin Rouge indeed originating from this Offenbach operetta), to such lively arrangements, sordid liaisons and bitter rivalry, that Orpheus in the Underworld has all the ingredients for a classic opera plot, if it’s not exactly the way the classical subject is more often played out. Not least of the imaginative arrangements in this humorous treatment is Apollo, disguised as a giant fly, getting it on in a vibrating buzzing way with Eurydice. Perhaps surprisingly, such racy material and irreverence is all there in Offenbach’s original work, and – without wishing to take anything away from Bremner’s often funny and cleverly rhyming English update – it only takes a tweak or two to spice it up with some modern pop-culture references (and some local topical ones, depending on the venue).

Underworld

Still, that’s making it all sound a little easier than it really is. In order to carry off this kind of comic opera, you not only need good performers who can act as well as sing, but they also need to have a good sense of comic timing and rapport with each other. If you have that – and there’s no doubt that this was certainly the case in this production – when combined with the zippy, witty and dazzling arrangements from Offenbach that belie the apparent lightness of the material, you have a winning combination. Surprisingly, Orpheus isn’t one of the major characters in the opera, but Nicholas Sherratt worked well alongside Jane Harrington’s terrific characterisation of Eurydice (by way perhaps of Katie Price and Victoria Beckham). Handling the comedy acting and the singing parts with equal aplomb, she was a delight whenever she was on the stage. The meatier roles however were given over to Brendan Collins and Gavin Ring as Apollo and Pluto, who both managed to strike the right tone throughout, as well as carry off the more outrageous moments of comic interplay. The all-important satirical sense of moral outrage mixed with salacious prying and interference was brilliantly brought out in Máire Flavin’s schoolmarmish Public Opinion, but all the cast fully entered into the spirit of the piece.

Conducted by Derek Clark, the chamber arrangement played by the NI Opera Orchestra worked perfectly with the intimacy of the venue at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill, but with appropriate zest and timing that fully supported the outrageous on-stage activities. Following the Northern Ireland tour, the production travels to the Young Vic in London for a number of dates between the 1st and 10th December and this is one show that is well worth catching if you can-can.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Scottish Opera | Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Richardson, Eddie Wade, Nadine Livingston, Edgaras Montvidas, Jonathan May, Louise Collett | Grand Opera House, Belfast - June 16, 2011

It’s hard to imagine how Verdi’s choice of Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ could have caused such a stir in 1850 when it was used as the basis for his opera Rigoletto, but censorship problems would dog the composer all through his early career, partly due to the revolutionary political content of his work, but also partly due to Verdi’s headstrong challenging of authority for most of his life. One can understand to some extent that, even with the arbitrary nature of censorship that would depend on where the opera was being first performed (Verdi famously would subsequently withdraw Un ballo in maschera from Naples and take it to Rome after already being forced to make sweeping changes to its original incarnation as Gustavo III) , that the authorities wouldn’t look too kindly upon the subject of a libertine king being involved in scandalous affairs with the wives of his courtiers and being subject to a death plot, but there are other shocking events introduced to the opera stage in Rigoletto by Verdi that we take almost for granted nowadays.  A good production of this opera however should ensure that it still has an impact today.

In the end, Verdi was forced to relocate Rigoletto away from the behaviour of royalty in post-revolutionary France to Mantua in Italy, but surprisingly, he was still able to make an obvious allusion to the notoriety of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. While Verdi might not have got away with depicting a libertine king consorting with prostitutes, a Duke indulging in that kind of behaviour on a stage was scarcely less shocking, but no more so that the fact that Verdi, who would be a great revolutionary in giving common people a voice on the opera stage, would depict anyone at all taking part in the rather sordid lowlife dealings that occur over the course of the opera’s intensely dramatic three acts. This was just not the sort of behaviour that one expected to see in an opera.

In my recent review of Macbeth, I mentioned how Verdi loved to mix political fire with the oil of relationship melodrama in his early works – Un ballo in maschera is another stormy later example of this style – but occasionally, the forumula changes in interesting ways, with Stiffelio for example combining a pot-boiling infidelity melodrama with religious rather than a political conviction and sense of duty. Rigoletto is also fascinating for its variation on a theme, where the central relationship under threat is not a romantic one (although it does have a romantic aspect), but the relationship between a father and his daughter. What is just as intriguing about the father-daughter relationship in Rigoletto is that it is not idealised, and the flawed character of Rigoletto can be seen as being fatally over-protective of his daughter, Gilda. When there is a libertine like the Duke of Mantua running around, whose reputation Rigoletto knows well as his court jester and co-conspirator, one can understand his concerns for the daughter that the brute of a man with many enemies has – and they prove to be well-founded – but the downside is that his over-protectiveness leads Gilda to react and assert her freedom of choice in a rather dramatic and tragic way.

Rigoletto

All of this adds spice to the characterisation, for while Rigoletto is certainly a blood-and-thunder Verdi melodrama (quite literally with the third-act bloodletting taking place during a thunderstorm), the composer does overturn some of the usual conventions. If Rigoletto is the standard clown, whose joking hides a sensitive disposition and whose ugliness of his deformity disguises the beauty of his love for his daughter, it’s his jealousy, his pride and his superstition (Verdi reminding us regularly of the curse that has been placed on him by Count Monterone for his complicity in the Duke’s crimes), that end up distorting the genuine love he has for his daughter. On the other hand, the villain of the piece, the Duke, manages through the privilege of his position and his handsomeness, as well as a carefree attitude, to get away with his infidelity and his use of people for his own pleasures. Rather than predictably show that all men are equal, Rigoletto emphasises rather the social inequalities that persist and how their weaknesses can be exploited by the less scrupulous – seen here in the form of the assassin, Sparafucile.

Whether these considerations really make Rigoletto anything more than a melodramatic potboiler is however difficult to justify, and indeed there’s little in Verdi’s score to suggest any greater subtleties. As a pure example of the Verdi style however, it’s a remarkably effective and superbly structured musical drama. Although it is principally concerned with introducing the characters, showing their temperaments and setting up the drama that is to later unfold, Act 1 does so most efficiently and has some fine musical moments and arias that are to reverberate through the remainder of the opera. Scottish Opera’s staging likewise tried to make this efficient as possible, viewing it not in period costume or set in Mantua (with the Marco Bellochio’s 2010 live telecast from Mantua still fresh in the mind, it could hardly compete with the real-life locations), but more like an old-fashioned cabaret or variety show, with Rigoletto in tights and pottering across the stage like Max Wall. With traditional backdrop stage-curtains and doors, chorus-line dancers and glitterballs, it set the tone well in this respect, but, like Verdi’s composition, the real test of the opera is in the second and third acts.

Rigoletto

The pivotal second act, made up of a series of stunning arias and duets, determines not only whether the singers are up to the challenge, but also whether the production is able to make it work in dramatic terms. It would be hard to get it so wrong that the drama doesn’t work – Verdi’s score is lean and strong enough on its own terms and the action well choreographed to pull it through – but thankfully, the quality of the singing and acting in Scottish Opera’s production was also up to the task. The three principal roles are all challenging, but vital, and they all need to work in common accord. Rigoletto’s lyrical baritone should ensure that it is anything but a buffone role, and Eddie Wade managed to convey the contradiction and confusion in the character’s make-up through his acting and through his fine singing performance of the role. Edgaras Montvidas came across as a little cocky and self-satisfied in his delivery as the Duke, but that’s how he ought to be. There’s a little room for early ambiguity which might not quite have been caught in his relationship with Gilda, since he has to be persuasive enough for her to trust him and fall in love with him, but elsewhere, and particularly in the famous third act aria La donna è mobile, the tone and the quality of the singing were excellent. It’s Gilda however that the opera ultimately rests upon, and although a little inexperienced, that innocent quality stood Nadine Livingston in good stead, making her predicament and fate genuinely touching and almost credible (there are limits to how convincing the denouement can be dramatically).

While it was harder to relate the relevance of the staging – an open room with a leather sofa and a glitterball littered with parts of showroom dummies in Act 2, a tilted-box representation of the inn in Act 3 – to any overall theme or concept, the choreography was fine and didn’t work against the drama. Combined with the strong singing and Verdi’s powerful score, this production hit all the right notes in all the right places, the darkness of the operas themes and its daring treatment still powerful enough for a modern day audience to in some way understand why it caused such a sensation over 150 years ago.