“Square your actions and circumscribe your desires.” Across the façade of a great house, the square and compass – symbols of Freemasonry – are projected as brothers busily work at architectural designs in the box-hedged garden. Mozart himself was a Mason, so it’s fair game for director Netia Jones to turn Tamino’s quest for Enlightenment into a path of initiation into Sarastro’s Lodge. But in her production, opening Garsington Opera’s 30th season, is the Queen of the Night really a dark force? What does Sarastro’s realm represent? Who is telling the truth? What is truth?

Stuart Thorn (Red Priest), Sen Guo (Queen of the Night) and Benjamin Hulett (Tamino)
© Johan Persson

Mozart was admitted to the Viennese Grand Lodge in 1784. Emanuel Schikaneder, his librettist on Die Zauberflöte and the first Papageno, was a fellow brother. Their Singspiel is loaded with Masonic symbolism around the Gimel sign, representing the number three: a trio of wind chords representing the candidate knocking at the door, seeking admittance; three Ladies to set Tamino on his journey; three Boys to guide him; the overture with three flats in its key signature. During that overture, Jones has Benjamin Hulett’s Tamino – an Aryan blond – blindfolded, embarking on a strange initiation rite in a bathtub, where rubber tubing becomes the ‘snake’ which eletrocutes him when one of the Three Ladies tampers with it, thus creating the peril from which they swiftly save him.

Benjamin Hulett (Tamino)
© Johan Persson

On black and white checkerboard flooring, the action resembles a game of chess, with ritualistic movements and pathways across the set. The Black Queen (of the Night), resembling a raven and clutching an urn and rosary, is attended by a Red Bishop, looming over her, a sinister Inquisitor casting elongated shadows. They represent Catholic reactionary forces, which threatened Freemasons with ex-communication. Sarastro’s Grand Lodge represents order and justice, truth and wisdom, the brothers dressed identically, all with glasses and moustaches.

But the role women play here is a subservient one – mute serving girls, their bonnets a visual reference to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. When Louise Alder’s feisty Pamina, more than capable of looking after herself, is forced to join them, Jones sets her on a collision course against authority. The Trials of Fire and Water become identical initiation ceremonies for Tamino, then Pamina, who immediately rips down the red drapes in Sarastro’s study to allow the light to flood in. Jones then offers a clever twist, signalling the end of more than one old order, but raising questions too.  

Louise Alder (Pamina) with Lucas Rebato, Frederick Jemison, Dionysios Sevastakis (Three Boys)
© Johan Persson

Under Christian Curnyn, musical standards are excellent. The Garsington Opera Orchestra played with neat, period attitude and tempi that were always purposeful. Louise Alder sang a commanding Pamina, her passionate, urgent “Ach, ich fühl’s” complete with soaring top notes. Benjamin Hulett’s muscular tenor made him a more heroic Tamino than usual, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” ardent in tone, sung to a video portrait of Alder. James Creswell’s crisp bass lent authority to Sarastro, while Adrian Thompson’s Monostatos – “ein böser Mann” rather than “ein böser Mohr” here – was in fine voice as a lascivious butcher. Sen Guo’s diminutive Queen of the Night was excellently sung, all the notes of her coloratura present and correct, even if her attack lacked stiletto sharpness.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Katie Stevenson, Katherine Crompton, Jonathan McGovern (Papageno)
© Johan Persson

Jonathan McGovern’s Papageno was stripped of his usual comic persona until he met Lara Marie Müller’s spunky Papagena. In tweeds, here Papageno is a swarthy poacher, bagging and skinning a rabbit during his opening aria, given grooming tips from Pamina during their “Bei Männern” duet. McGovern delighted in a charming “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, tinkling on the toy piano which replaced his “silver bells”. With the Three Ladies blending well – each with a different visual tic – and plucky performances by rollerskating Fauntleroys as the Three Boys, the depth in casting was admirable.