Mozart’s original The Magic Flute is bizarre enough. The story of a prince and a bird-catcher’s journey to save a princess they’ve never met from a sinister quasi-Freemason who turns out to be alright, it is sufficiently packed full of great songs and good humour to have become an enduring repertory favourite – but that doesn’t mean it makes any sense. It doesn’t, really. It is a daft opera.

Elisabeth Marshall (Lady), James Harrison (Papageno), Caterina Sereno (Lady), Fleur de Bray (Queen o © Polly Hancock
Elisabeth Marshall (Lady), James Harrison (Papageno), Caterina Sereno (Lady), Fleur de Bray (Queen o
© Polly Hancock

Why the need, then, to make it any dafter? A brand new version of the work has just arrived at the Riverside Studios, courtesy of the Merry Opera Company and librettist/director Kit Hesketh-Harvey, and while there are enjoyable moments, conceptually speaking it bites off more than can really be chewed. The plot is adapted to shoehorn in Mozart and the original librettist Emanuel Schikaneder as characters themselves, doubling hero Tamino and bird-catcher Papageno (who was originally played by Schikaneder). This role-doubling leads to a number of unresolvable plot-holes and paradoxes.

We begin by seeing a fevered Mozart struggling to compose at his desk, apparently near death. He hallucinates an encounter with a dragon. The Three Ladies vanquish it. Schikaneder pays him a visit, and they rehearse Papageno’s first aria, ahead of the imminent première of The Magic Flute. Some time around now, Mozart dons a wig and becomes Tamino; his wife Constanza is eventually revealed also to be Tamino’s love Pamina; and Constanza’s diva sister Josepha morphs confusingly with the Queen of the Night – Pamina’s mother. In other words, it gradually becomes the opera that Mozart is writing, but there are lamentably few similarities between the Mozart plotline and the Magic Flute plotline and the result is convoluted to say the least. The odd historical accuracy (Josepha, like Schikaneder, did indeed play this character in the opera’s première) does not salvage a basically weak concept.

This production follows a very enjoyable La Traviata from the Merry Opera Company last year, which was also translated by Hesketh-Harvey – there, the opera benefited from its recontextualisation, giving a fresh slant on a story which was always meant to have a biting contemporary edge to it. The Magic Flute, on the other hand, is pure escapism in the first place, and doesn’t particularly need to have anything added to it at all to make it transparent, enjoyable fun.

The band were also on better form when I heard them last year; here, the arrangement for piano, string trio and solo woodwind came across rather four-square, and I missed the louche, jazzy touch of their Traviata. Further, in this of all operas, out-of-tune flute playing is something best avoided – I would be optimistic, though, for the musical standards picking up over the course of the run. But this night, the best musical performances came from the singers. The main roles are mostly double- or even triple-cast, but the set of performers I heard was uniformly impressive: Lawrence Olsworth-Peter an elegant, if not too powerful Mozart/Tamino; Daisy Brown a delightful Constanza/Pamina; Thomas Faulkner a commanding and hefty Sarastro. Queen of the Night Fleur de Bray did a commendable job of her famous aria. The pick for me, though, was James Harrison’s Schikaneder/Papageno, not only for his strong but well-controlled singing, but for his excellently pantomime-esque acting. His scenes, including those with his long-sought-for girlfriend Papagena (the lively Gemma Morsley), were mostly the evening’s highlights.

I can cope with complicated opera productions. I can even cope with productions which demand a pre-existing knowledge of the opera’s plot and performance history. But an opera production whose conclusion is sufficiently convoluted that you have to read the programme notes to find out what happens (the resolution of the Mozart strand of the story rests entirely on the subtle deployment of a wig) – that is a step too far for me. Small-scale opera is surely all about finding new ways to connect with audiences: whether through new interpretative ideas, interesting venues, or actual new music, the goal is to make opera understood, but this version just made it more complicated.