Soho Theatre, London – until 7 October 2017
To chop Mozart’s The Magic Flute down into two hours, with an interval; to translate it entirely into English; to set it in a modern-day nightclub-style setting, are all brave moves by OperaUpClose. Glyn Maxwell’s revised libretto, Valentina Ceschi’s direction and Alex Beetschen’s orchestration down to four instrumentalists are not perfect – understandable given the mammoth undertaking. But they are bloody close and that in itself is a huge achievement.
Earlier this year, OperaUpClose brought their first of three 2017 works, La Voix Humaine, and fell flat. But everything of the dynamic, pace and drive that this production lacked finds itself in The Magic Flute. An acrobatic vocal plea for help from the Queen of the Night (Luci Briginshaw) to a nightclubber, the rich vocals of tenor Tamino (Peter Kirk), is established in the first few minutes and away we go into dreams, nightmares and otherworldly realms.
Ceschi’s overture takes up an inordinate percentage of show time, but it aptly highlights the crazed madness of the midnight clubbing scene, ready to contrast it with the epilogue in the harsh light of day. Hen parties debauch themselves before the accompanying inflatable genitalia props are popped, cleaned up by the dawn street sweepers in this haze of colourful design. Emma Bailey’s set, a revolving turntable, is used to great effect and adds to the madness of the dream-like state that our performers tumble headfirst into. But it is Zoe Spurr’s lighting design that elevates this performance to a real visual spectacle. Spurr’s work is a gorgeous combination of subtle colouring and in your face jubilance that complements the situation with startling accuracy. From the flickering of a seedy nightclub light, to the nostalgic revolving of a disco ball and primary coloured strip lighting, her work inadvertently draws the emotional eye time and time again.
Maxwell and Ceschi both go to great lengths to realise a nuanced production in The Magic Flute that caters for the modern age. The reduced libretto and Beetschen’s subsequently reduced orchestration are incredibly considered, going to great pains not to dilute neither the story nor the musical impact. With the exception of Papageno (Tom Stoddart) and Papagena (Felicity Buckland), whose relationship is unsubstantiated in the first half and then rushed into towards the end, each character’s narrative arc is left intact, if a little redacted.
As for the opera voices themselves, there is real promise in every performance – none are perfect, but everyone is well versed and progressive in their craft. The vocal acrobatics of Briginshaw in her famous second aria, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’, are controlled and measured, displaying control in the soft dynamics right at the top of her range. Contrast this to the beautifully deep bass tones of Sarastro (Julian Debreuil) and the full vocal range is on display here. Buckland’s part is cut somewhat scant and Kirk’s caramel tenor risks straying into musical theatre on a couple of rare occasions, but the potential is plain to see.
The stand-out performance in all respects for The Magic Flute lies with Pamina (Abigail Kelly), a scene stealer in every respect. Kelly may not get to show off her range to the same extent as Briginshaw, but her arias fill themselves with pathos and emotional depth – none more so than in ‘Ah, I feel it, it is vanished’. Even in harmonic duets and trios, Kelly’s tone is instantly recognisable, beautifully blending with the remaining vocal lines but subtly standing out through its timbre and vibrato. This performance draws the ear without fail every time.
The Magic Flute is a heady mix that captures the playful, surrealist essence of Mozart’s original and makes it translatable to the modern day. Impactful, emotional and delivered with gusto, OperaUpClose bring to life the pursuit of true love amid the sweaty club dancefloor with true creativity and flair.