It’s always a treat to go to the opera at the Hackney Empire. What you see there is invariably a touring opera company, unencumbered by the burden of lavish resources, dealing creatively with the need to carry all its paraphernalia on its back around the country or continent, and hence required to focus with enthusiasm and economy on making the work come to life. In this, English Touring Opera found themselves marvellously assisted for this Magic Flute by a splendidly varied sell-out audience, on the whole similarly unencumbered by wealth and pretension.

Ashley Catling (Tamino) and Anna Patalong (Pamina) © Robert Workman
Ashley Catling (Tamino) and Anna Patalong (Pamina)
© Robert Workman

The wonderfully ambitious ETO is perhaps at the more sophisticated end of the spectrum of touring companies, but nevertheless its performance of The Magic Flute still managed to hold on to that raw feeling of fun and delight which, far from intimidating the audience, invites them in and makes Mozart’s piece such a joy to experience. Not that the production is entirely without pretension: after a strikingly incisive launch of the overture, the cast, in black, struck silhouette tableaus of increasingly lascivious decadence around the bewildered figure of Tamino and, before lining up to become the predatory serpent, they raise Tamino masks. We are invited to consider that the serpent is Tamino’s own unwholesome nature with which he is to struggle henceforward, and in this we gain the germ of an idea - but lost in confusion is the drama of the sudden slaughter of the serpent by Three Ladies, and Papageno’s lie that he had slaughtered it fails to register without its dead body lying before us. Later, in the Act II, there are some shenanigans with standard lamps and lightshades, objects that remain irremediably prosaic, and hardly frolic as the presumably intended props to a domestic fairy-tale. But these are quibbles, and I am done with them. On the whole, the production is a delight, with some stunning coups de théâtre.

The stage is a three level interior, rising to a small “stage within a stage” from which the Queen of the Night makes her dramatic entrance but, as she descends towards us, her iridescent blue train billows out to fill the whole stage. It’s a magnificent sight and very well accomplished. There are six side doors and an array of trap doors through which a profligate array of props and people come and go, giving good account of the fertility of librettist Schikaneder’s invention.

Samantha Hay (Queen of the Night) and Ashley Catling (Tamino) © Robert Workman
Samantha Hay (Queen of the Night) and Ashley Catling (Tamino)
© Robert Workman

In terms of acting and singing, in this night’s cast the women were the stronger suit. The three ladies, Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne and Helen Johnson, were excellent in both voice and playing of their parts, their swift changes of conduct accomplished with startling conviction. Samantha Hay’s Queen of the Night was every bit as forthright and spine-tingling as it has to be, and Anna Patalong’s heartbroken Pamina gave us moments of spellbinding beauty, rich soft singing in her laments, under the mistaken impression that Tamino has turned against her.

Wyn Pencarreg (Papageno) © Robert Workman
Wyn Pencarreg (Papageno)
© Robert Workman

Abigail Kelly, Emily-Jane Thomas and Laura Kelly made a sweet-sounding, chirpily athletic trio of boys. As Tamino, Ashley Catling sounded a little constricted, but as the evening went on his voice became sweeter and more attractive, and he was especially good when singing in the quintet or with the chorus. His sidekick, Papageno, was splendidly characterised by Wyn Pencarreg, in strong voice; the fact that his dominant physique fought against his feathery role gave an added dimension to the comedy. Bass Andrew Slater’s Sarastro was delightfully resonant in the lower registers, but he lacked the last ounce of authority in the part.

The singing of the chorus was strong, but the choreography would benefit from some tightening up. It may be a fantastic tale, but the performers need to seem to believe it unreservedly, and it was here that the interpretation seemed to me to lack something of the power that Mozart’s late great opera can deliver. It was partly a matter of tempo. James Southall’s conducting elicited fine orchestral playing, with great clarity and communicativeness. Everything went along at a lively pace, which helped keep the vitality of the narrative alive, but the moments of greatest solemnity often seemed a bit glib, given just cursory attention as though to say, “Nobody believes all this nonsense about virtue and justice and mankind’s redemption”. The processional rituals of the brotherhood performed on stage were rather perfunctory; they need to be more serious, more believable for the balance of forces at work in the opera to register fully. Mozart and Schikaneder’s opera is nicely poised between delightful nonsense and soul-searching depths, much of the latter evoked in the music. I felt the balance in this performance was maybe weighted more towards fun than profundity, which made for an entrancing evening out, but maybe left us with a little less to take away than is sometimes within the gift of this sparkling masterpiece.