Following acclaimed productions at Scottish Opera of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, recently revived, Thomas Allen returns to Glasgow to direct The Magic Flute. Taking inspiration from the city’s famed boisterous music hall history, the collections of William Hunter and his own childhood images of the shipyards on the Wear, Allen’s theme is Victorian industrial with a modern twist of steampunk.

Richard Burkhard as Papageno in Scottish Opera's The Magic Flute © Ken Dundas
Richard Burkhard as Papageno in Scottish Opera's The Magic Flute
© Ken Dundas

Allen, a renowned Papageno himself, knows the work inside-out and directed with a singer’s understanding. He made this very much Papageno’s opera, and so the dapper Richard Burkhard was certainly the star turn of the evening. As the opera began the fun started as Papageno, dressed initially as a Victorian showman, pulled out a reluctant Tamino (Nicky Spence) from the audience, who protested as he was immediately bundled into his princely clothes from theatre-going attire.

Sung in English with English supertitles, the witty libretto adaptation from Kit Hesketh-Harvey kept things light and amusing, with room for modern asides to be thrown in. Nicky Spence was a more than capable Tamino with Laura Mitchell his sweetly sung Pamina.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Best’s black-gowned Sarastro, complete with dark glasses, had suitable gravitas, although his lowest notes were somewhat lost. Queen of the Night Mari Moriya, in a stunning black dress which included sparkly LED lights, has sung this famously challenging role internationally, and here she certainly hit all those top notes. The Three Ladies, also in black sparkly lit dresses, blended nicely – although Claire Watkins as First Lady deserves a prize for coping with her costume, which included a beyond shoulder-width inverted (and lit) half-moon of a hat. Another prize too for the Three Boys, completely in white, for managing to sing and hold their poses whilst being flown down in a tableau across the back of the set, each holding a white parasol with a small twirling propeller at a jaunty angle, which can’t have been easy. Making her Scottish Opera debut, Ruth Jenkins as a strongly sung Papagena was a fitting match for her Papageno.

The specially assembled chorus of Victorian industrial leaders, miners, boilermen and nurses sounded particularly thrilling. In the pit, Scottish Opera’s Mozart-sized orchestra under conductor Ekhart Wycik promised much musically with a meticulously phrased overture. He arranged his forces to produce an interesting balance, with the lower strings out in front of the conductor and first and second violins arranged either side tight to the audience; woodwind was also brought out from under the stage to give a brightness to the music, leaving the brass and Baroque timpani well under the overhang. During the performance, the two clarinets switched to basset horns to give Satastro’s music a sinister reedy edge, and Claire Haslin gave a deft performance on the keyboard glockenspiel for Papageno’s bell songs, which was just perfect, as it has to be.

The busy fixed set from Simon Higlet was an industrial delight. A rotunda framed by two mobile gantries of twin-level wrought iron galleries had steamy boilers, wheels, cogs and levers below and round colonial windows above. It was reminiscent of an old anatomy lecture theatre, and indeed, some of Sarastro’s brotherhood in stovepipe hats, gold brocade waistcoats and pleated frockcoats stalked the walkways virtually throughout. Mark Jonathan clearly had great fun lighting everything using a full technical palette from primary reds for fire and watery blues for the trials, follow spots and sideways shafts of light through holes in the set with plenty of stage smoke from the boilers for added atmosphere. Even the hats had lights: the miners had pink LED torches in their helmets, and the stovepipes had bulbs inside theirs. All in all, there was so much detail it was a challenge to take it all in.

The story was played very simply and effectively, but by selecting Tamino from us in the audience, perhaps this was to suggest the possibilities and rewards that are there for every man prepared to undergo the Trials. There were many amusing twists and details, including a series of egg-shaped steampunk prams with tartan rugs descending in size for the many Papageni.

With the performance across the road in June at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, lucky Glasgow has enjoyed two extremely entertaining and very different Magic Flutes in the space of five months. The grand scale of Scottish Opera’s production was undoubtedly impressive and fizzing with enjoyment, but the smaller, intimate opera school’s version, sung in German, offered a different experience again. It was great fun to go to both.