Mozart's moral fairytale The Magic Flute feels like the closest opera comes to pantomime: its Singspiel form mixes spoken words with song, while its cast of misfit characters explore the adventure of love from all angles from the painful to the humourous, building finally to a refreshingly real conclusion which finally rejects magic in favour of the brighter power of truth. Director John Savournin has created a lively, accessible and stripped-down Flute for Iford which gives the lovers Tamino and Pamina a clear choice between the superstitious tribal culture of the Queen of the Night, and the humanist ethos of Enlightenment philosophy pioneered by the philosopher-sorcerer Sarastro. Savournin and conductor David Eaton have together produced a flexible, engaging translation which touches us as much as it teases, funny and thought-provoking by turns: only days after the Chilcot Inquiry, the line "in times of warfare and deception, the truth will put the world at peace" suddenly felt almost disturbingly poignant.
Simon Bejer's design takes us to the Peruvian rainforest, filling the stone cloister with luscious ferns and lianas, where lusty tribeswomen hunt unsuspecting strangers and Sarastro, bare-chested and crowned with a Mohican of turquoise parrot feathers, presides over his hooded followers in an Inca temple of enlightenment. The distinctively tropical, exotic feel of the production, which includes some wonderful glowing UV snakes and an hilarious trio of singing puppet parrots, is a true visual treat. Puppetry also forms a key part of the excellent disguise for Papagena, whose surprise I won't spoil further. A series of good lighting decisions from Nicholas Holdridge keeps the production feeling dynamic, despite general continuity of staging.
An exceptional trio of sopranos as the Three Ladies give all other principals a real run for their money in terms of sheer expressiveness and accuracy, singing out of their skins. Hannah Sawle is on fabulous vocal form as the Queen of the Night, enhanced by deft directoral touches from Savournin: decapitating and dismembering a parrot in her first aria, later viciously attacking a voodoo doll of Sarastro as she exhorts Pamina to revenge her perceived wrongs, Sawle builds up a picture of a disturbed, greedily callous queen who is probably beyond the reach of any redemption, though at times her face could be more animated.
The orchestra of Charles Court Opera may not quite have the fabulous tonal richness of the CHROMA Ensemble, who also play at Iford, but David Eaton presides with focus and enthusiasm over an energetic and competent reduction of Mozart's score. Like so many fairytales, the truth at the heart of The Magic Flute can apply sharply when least expected: as we wade through the consequences of our collective decision-making post-EU-referendum, the opera's insistence on individual responsibility and the power of collective endeavour seems more than timely. Like Sarastro, "We can only guide, and hope they will choose strength and gain wisdom on the path to peace; none can avoid the choice to choose." Or, indeed, to live out the aftermath of those choices.
Find Opera now