It might be a useful “rule of thumb” for every director of opera, to imagine the audience will be coming to the opera for the first time and view his own job as giving maximum clarity to the production he or she is working on. I wonder what any first timers made of Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of The Magic Flute Upstairs at The Gatehouse on Saturday evening? There was clearly a desire to give a new slant to this well-loved and often performed opera expressed by Music Director Oliver-John Ruthven in the programme. “Our aim is to present characters in realistic situations, both in physical and emotional terms”. Director James Hurley’s conceit that the story was being told by Mum and Dad, Pamina and Tamino, to their three girls as a bedtime story in the nursery, although an interesting one, sadly had the effect of distancing me from the opera’s magic and beauty. There is a ritual aspect to fairytale and we want the characters to re-enact their stereotypical roles as they have always done. Mozart’s genius is that even in their fabulous setting music pours out that is full of human emotion.

Robyn Parton as the Queen of the Night and Hannah Sawle as Pamina, credit Laurent Compagnon
Robyn Parton as the Queen of the Night and Hannah Sawle as Pamina, credit Laurent Compagnon

Instead I was distracted by having to work out what various props symbolized and irritated by the extra business required to sustain this conceit – e.g. books which had been scattered over the floor needing to be tidied up once by the three girls and on another occasion by Sarastro’s acolytes. This frustration was carried over into the choice of costumes: Papageno and Papagena in giant babygrows, the Queen of the Night looking like a young girl going to a prom in the first act and Pamina in an unflattering short white dress. Only Sarastro and the Brotherhood in their suits with sashes were truly convincing in their departure from the more traditional priestly costumes.

The singing, from the principals to the chorus was of the consistently high standard we have come to expect from Hampstead Garden Opera over recent years. In Iain Milne we had a robust Tamino always vocally reliable, Hannah Sawle as Pamina was committed and assured although tended towards an over- bright tone. Robyn Parton as Queen of the Night was both elegant and deadly, always connected to her emotions even in the exacting and mostly accurate coloratura. Andrew Tipple as a fittingly dignified Sarastro displayed a rich, even tone throughout. Daniel Roddick played a likeable Papageno with a pleasing baritone and we were rooting for him when the delightful Emilia Pountney as Papagena came on the scene. The three ladies were feisty and energetic with a good vocal blend and the three girls (more traditionally three boys) suitably more delicate and silvery in tone. Most impressive was the overall sense of a committed and focused company intent on that highest of human endeavours – cooperation in producing a coherent musical whole.

The Dionysus Ensemble kept good pace under Oliver-John Ruthven’s direction although there were times when the ensemble was somewhat ragged. Stephen Fry’s translation contained some unexpected and delightful witticisms and the dialogue created by Alastair Macgeorge and the cast worked well. There were some ingenious lighting effects from Rob Mills which made up for the lack of a serpent and somewhat tame trials of fire and water.

The audience received the performance enthusiastically, laughing at the jokes and appreciating the high quality of music-making from Hampstead Garden Opera.