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Review of The Magic Flute

21st to 23rd November 2019

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Hoot of a Flute

Think Butlins with better music… Kennet Opera’s comic take on Mozart

Kennet Opera: The Magic Flute, at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, from Thursday November 21, to Saturday, November 23

As befits the beginning of the festive season – and the Magic Flute's mix of fantasy and fare – Kennet Opera's latest production sees Mozart's opera played as a comedic pantomime.

Mozart moved opera out of the court and into the theatre; an innovation in its time. This production, sung in English, with the humorous contemporary translation of the dialogue giving nods to this area (Basingstoke and Slough took some flak), was set in the 1950s, in a seaside holiday camp. Think Butlins with better music. The approach played to some enjoyable stereotypes of English provincial life: patronising aristocrats, well-meaning village ladies and sexual attraction across the class divide. Inventive re-naming of the characters fitted the holiday-camp theme.

Set designer Suzanne Thomson took a very effective minimalist approach, with a lit, open rhomboid structure on a central platform, flanked by two lower wings, one housing the small chamber orchestra. Lighting designer Vicky Allen lit the central structure in different colours and levels of brightness to both create and reflect differing moods.

Sung in English, the cast's excellent diction in both vocal and spoken passages was a major plus for the singspiel form. Stage director Jim Petts not only made the convoluted plot legible, but along with casting and translation, diluted what can be problematic aspects of the opera for contemporary audiences: an antediluvian attitude to women; a stereotypical view of black sexuality and miscegenation when Monostatos is cast conventionally, as a Moor; and the strand of Freemasonry running through the plot (both Mozart and librettist Schikaneder were Masons).

Kennet Opera fielded a strong ensemble of singers, with the set-piece choral singing a very enjoyable element. Of the principals, the Queen of the Night is a pivotal, testing role, combining icy regality with vocal fireworks. It needs a seriously good coloratura soprano, and Hannah Dobra was more than up to the task, with a commanding presence and a secure, acrobatic voice. Soprano Rachel Crisp combines dramatic ability with warmth, expression and ease in all vocal registers: she was a bubbly, likeable Pamina.

Tenor Robert Felstead made a winning, friendly Tamino; his strong voice has a good bottom end. Baritone Luke Deacon as Papageno married vocal agility and a pleasing tone to comedic skill. He was well matched by Lucy Kitt as a sassy Papagena, their famous patter duet spirited and fun. Bass James Mitchell was a solemn but dramatically static Sarastro, and Duncan Powell played Monostatos as a dim lecher, rather than an incipient rapist.

Don Crerar's Senior Bluecoat was a stately, thoughtful figure; his sidekicks Ant Goffart and Adrian Slatter deserve plaudits simply for having the gumption to appear on stage in those execrable bathing suits… There were very enjoyable harmonies by the trio of sea cadets (Cathy Black, Helen Maguire and Clare Kirk) and by the cabal of interfering busybodies (Tamsin Slatter, Alex Merckx and Susan Moore). Imaginative costuming by Helen Ryan saw them in 50s two-piece suits with weaponised handbags and brollies.

The influence of music director Justin Bindley is evident in the high vocal standard and in the orchestra's committed playing, with arrangement by Callum Morton Hüseyin.

Kennet Opera continues to bring enjoyable productions of grand opera to local people. Now in its 25th year, it's a remarkable achievement.

LIN WILKINSON

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