The Magic Flute

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

Opera Theatre Company present 'The Magic Flute' by W.A. Mozart.

As recently as a year ago the death-rattle was sounding in the throat of Opera Theatre Company, whose forced closure, along with that of Opera Ireland, was intended to clear a pathway for the establishment of a single national opera company. A year later OTC is still fighting fit, with funding through till March 2012, and a cracking new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute touring eighteen different venues across Ireland, boldly perpetuating the company’s proud reputation for taking its productions to locations normally on short rations operatically, if not starved completely.

Opera Theatre Company presents 'The Magic Flute'.The most striking aspect of Annilese Miskimmon's staging is the extent to which she makes dramatic sense of the opera's second half, whose protracted, foggily motivated sequence of tests and trials can sap an audience's will to pay attention, notwithstanding the sublimity of Mozart's music. Miskimmon's tactic is to confront head-on the cause of Act Two's narrative opacity: the mysterious power wielded by High Priest Sarastro and his male acolytes, and his apparent desire to make it as difficult as possible for Tamino to claim Pamina as his own, and marry her.

For Miskimmon, Sarastro's motivation is simple: he's a sinister misogynist who doesn't want young lovers to be happy, preferring the secure predictability of the arcane rituals which are his modus operandi, and that of his half-ridiculous, half-threatening retinue. Miskimmon makes closet Masons of them (the opera is replete with Masonic references), complete with dog-collars, linen belt-bibs, and a rolled-up trouser-leg each – risible to look at, but for the Sarastro-ites a matter of deadly seriousness, making the visual jokery simultaneously a touch unsettling.

Miskimmon's bold outing of Sarastro as a domineering control-freak snaps Act Two into riveting narrative focus, a battle-ground between a joylessly phallocentric world-view engineered by men behaving oddly, and one in which the self-expressions of romantic love might be freely celebrated. When Pamina is finally able to openly declare her love for Tamino, and he is able to respond to her, it is the opera's most moving moment, infused with radiant femininity by soprano Emma Morwood, who sang impressively all evening. Her Tamino, Adrian Dwyer, had the ringingly ardent tenor the part needs, and avoided the kind of soppiness it can easily descend to.

Opera Theatre Company presents 'The Magic Flute'.As the love-lorn bird-catcher Papageno, Tamino’s comic alter-ego, Limerick baritone Owen Gilhooly gave a charmingly enacted, solidly sung performance, his eventual union with Papagena (“his tweetheart”, as the programme puts it) celebrated by a duet with Mary O’Sullivan in which the pair gleefully conjured one freshly laid egg after another from hands, arms, cuffs and cleavage, a joyful symbol of their impending parenthood.

Australian soprano Allison Bell was a dramatically powerful Queen of the Night, pinging out the treacherously high notes in her two big arias imperiously. But it was Texan bass Matthew Treviño who truly galvanised attention: his Sarastro was magnetically sung and acted, an eerily hermetic presence with an insinuatingly malevolent agenda (he manhandles Pamina creepily during one aria). Sarastro’s part goes very low musically, but Treviño’s bottom Fs were unpinched and beautifully supported, his sonorous, burnished tone and clear enunciation a source of constant pleasure.

Nicky Shaw’s minimalist, uncluttered set design intelligently facilitated the busy interchange of characters in The Lir’s tightly pinched spaces; Sinéad McKenna’s lighting made particularly striking use of the trap-door opening in the triple-decker stage area, and the gantry operators had a busy evening lifting and lowering singers behind the static backdrop delineating Sarastro’s temple. The six-piece pit band gave an energetic, propulsive account of Cameron Sinclair’s reduced orchestration, directed by Brenda Hurley from the piano.

Opera Theatre Company presents 'The Magic Flute'.The evening was, however, ultimately director Annilese Miskimmon’s triumph. To call her Magic Flute a feminist interpretation is tempting, but misleadingly reductive: she’s simply had the courage to unravel the assumptions about male domination and superiority which are fundamental to Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto, and subject them to intelligent twenty-first century investigation. Her Act Two in particular is a locus classicus of acuity and clarity, the most probing and revelatory I’ve seen in thirty years attending productions of the opera.

Coincidentally I’d also attended Oliver Mears’ highly successful new staging of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for NI Opera two days earlier in Belfast. When you add to what Mears and Miskimmon are developing in their respective companies the work that’s done in Wexford and Cork, and at the Anna Livia, Glasthule and other festivals, it’s possible to wonder whether there has ever been such a lively concentration of operatic talent in Ireland as there is at present, producing work of such stimulating quality. Even - perhaps especially - in these straitened times, it’s crucial that those controlling the public purse-strings provide the financial wherewithal to enable achievements on the heroically high level of Opera Theatre Company’s new Magic Flute to keep on happening.

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera Britannia, Culture Northern Ireland and other publications.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

25 Nov - 18 Feb, 2012 (on tour)

Produced by Opera Theatre Company
In The Lir

Music Direction: Brenda Hurley

Directed by Annilese Miskimmon

Design: Nicky Shaw

Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna.

With: Owen Gilhooly, Adrian Dwyer, Allison Bell, Emma Morwood, Matthew Trevino, Lawrence Thackeray, Mary O’Sullivan, Joan O'Malley, Mihaela Loredana Chirvase, Nathan Morrison, and Eoin Hynes.