Children play a significant part in this fetching and inventive English-language production of Mozart’s classic Singspiel. They uphold an old tradition which includes, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s close-up shots of a child’s face in the audience in his 1975 film, and are part of a constant supply of recruits from Opera North’s thriving children’s chorus. Here, they move solemnly in groups across the stage, spy on the action from the edges and fall about in glee when Papageno is around. They dress in red to lurk backstage when Sarastro addresses his seekers after wisdom, and the whole opera is framed during the overture as the dream of a small girl in a bed, after she has put a vinyl recording of it onto an old-fashioned record player, the production’s first auditory illusion. A banquet can be seen taking place behind her, the miming guests anticipating the characters: the one later identified as Sarastro mouths grace. The girl’s mother is an apparently furious gatecrasher who will become the Queen of the Night.

Samantha Hay (The Queen of the Night) © Alastair Muir
Samantha Hay (The Queen of the Night)
© Alastair Muir

James Brining, creative director of Leeds Playhouse, took William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell as his primary inspiration after he was commissioned to direct. He found that one particular quote from the poetry, published at about the same time as the opera’s first performance in 1791 in Vienna, was relevant to his updating intentions: “Without contraries is no progression”. Conductor Robert Howarth, an Early Music enthusiast, delved into old texts as well, in his case a facsimile autograph score which enabled him to establish Mozart’s intentions and acknowledge them as far as possible in what might be termed a neo-baroque style. The result is an eclectic production in which the orchestra makes a good marriage with the performers on stage, which has neither too much sweet enchantment nor too much of a dark side.

Kang Wang (Tamino) and Gavan Ring (Papageno) © Alastair Muir
Kang Wang (Tamino) and Gavan Ring (Papageno)
© Alastair Muir

There is a definite stress on sinister aspects, though, certainly not connected with the pantomime monster chasing Tamino in the first scene. The set’s huge, dangling trees with their exposed blood-red roots provide an ominous atmosphere. John Savournin is a smart and elegant Sarastro, whose “Isis and Osiris” in Act 2 is a little lighter than usual, and a perfect pleasure, but he presides over a worrying bunch of humourless initiates who are ruthlessly controlled, the nun-like women reminiscent of those in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the men like military police. Pamina is injected with sedatives by official order – and by a particularly seedy Monostatos, a villain’s part which two hundred years ago was a racist stereotype of a black man lusting after a white woman, an impossible representation today. Here, he lacks only a grubby fawn raincoat, in an impressive performance by tenor John Findon, as he attempts to violate a black Pamina.

Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) with Ben Hayes, Matilda Hazell and Lucy Sherman © Alastair Muir
Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) with Ben Hayes, Matilda Hazell and Lucy Sherman
© Alastair Muir

South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu took this part, in a first appearance in Leeds, her lush voice deeply moving in Act 2 when she thinks she has lost the happiness brought by love in “Ah, I feel it, it’s disappeared” (Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden). Australian tenor Kang Wang brought plenty of well-enunciated sweetness to his vocal performance as Tamino, his aria seemingly effortless, and coloratura soprano Samantha Hay came into her own very soon after a slightly nervous start in Act 1. Her famous aria “Hell’s vengeance rages” (Der Hölle Rache) in Act 2 was hair-raisingly good, her precise high Fs a perfect contrast to Savournin’s precise low Fs as Sarastro. The three ladies from the Queen of the Night’s department are not ladies at all. Lorna James, Helen Évora and Amy J Payne represent them as martial arts practitioners in bloodstained, nursing uniforms, wielding light sabres. They are startling, but almost count as part of the comic relief.

Much of the comedy, predictably enough, was conveyed by Gavan Ring’s hilarious Papageno, the ultimate scene-stealer, especially in his Irish-accented spoken asides. I particularly liked his duet with Papagena, a feisty Amy Freston. They hardly dance at all, but are gradually surrounded by their offspring, every one the children we had seen earlier. Papagena is not a transformed old woman, but an escapee from the repressive cult. She tears off her head covering at the end, followed by all the other women, who then depart, leaving Sarastro on stage, watched by the small girl, who has reached the end of her dream.

****1