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Reviews

<em>Die Zauberflöte</em>, Garsington Opera 2018
01 Jun 2018

Netia Jones' new Die Zauberflöte opens Garsington Opera's 2018 season

“These portals, these columns prove/that wisdom, industry and art reside here.” So says Tamino, as he gazes up at the three imposing doors in the centre of Netia Jones’ replica of the 18th-century Wormsley Park House - in the grounds of which Garsington Opera’s ‘floating’ Pavilion makes its home each summer.

Die Zauberflöte, Garsington Opera 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Garsington Opera Chorus, Katie Stevenson (Third Lady), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Second Lady), Katherine Crompton (First Lady), Sen Guo (Queen of the Night), Benjamin Hulett (Tamino), Stuart Thorn (Red Priest)

Photo credit: John Snelling

 

The white Palladian façade is adorned with intersecting etchings of the sacred geometry of Freemasonry - the divine proportions of the Golden Rectangle, the Pythagorean triangles which embody Euclid’s 47th proposition, Fibonacci spirals whose circles represent the spiritual realm, and algebraic letters and numerals in a gracious font. We can have little doubt that in her new production of Die Zauberflöte for Garsington Opera, Jones intends to dabble playfully and portentously with the heraldry and rituals of Freemasonry. As the spritely overture scampers through its paces, bookended by noble orchestral pillars, Masonic brothers stride solemnly across the chequer-board terrace, circling the ornamental hedges and camera obscura, clutching clipboards upon which they scribble architectural notes and calculations; or climb ladders to make measurements and markings on the towering walls; or ‘square up’ a design perched on an easel.

Jones’ beautiful set brings the Garsington garden into the Pavilion. The mathematical symmetries of topiary, sun-dial, and triangular folly-frames recall Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract with its exaggerated artificiality, numerical and iconographic games, excessive wigs, costume colour-coding and obsession with optical devices. But, there’s a dash of Alice in Wonderland, too, in the formal decorum from which topsy-turvy confusion and troubling ambiguity threaten to break free.

And, there is indeed plentiful darkness in Jones’ conception; the surveillance cameras atop the façade are a sinister ornamentation, and as events unfold a surreptitious camera-man monitors proceedings which are relayed to the CCTV units installed in the Hallowed Hall.

Masonic Hall.jpg James Creswell (Sarastro), Richard Burkhard (Speaker) with Garsington Opera Chorus. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Act 2 takes us into the latter - framed with luxurious curtains of crimson-velvet and equipped with high altar and table of epicurean victuals. Behind the high-backed, dark-wood chairs, interspersed between mounted candles, six pedestalled television screens project the Masonic ‘G’ - in Hebrew called Gheemel (or Gimel), and associated with the numerical value of 3 - which stand for the God who is Great Architect of Universe and for Geometry, the fifth science (and also allude perhaps to Garsington itself) upon which architecture and Freemasonry were founded. The Masonic Eye, too, stares unblinkingly from the screens, a symbol of the watchful Eye of God and of the Eygptian deity, Osiris, whose hieroglyphic gaze oversaw the ancient temples.

In Jones’ production, however, such motifs take on the sinister omnipresence of an Orwellian telescreen. Sarastro is not known for his feminist liberalism - he warns Tamino against the ‘arrogant’ Pamina: ‘A man must guide your heart,/for without that, every woman/tends to overstep her natural sphere’ - and here Freemasonry is more than an esoteric men’s club. Its Gnostic philosophy, rituals and colour symbolism are overlain with echoes of and imagery from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: such as the face-obscuring bonnets worn by the hooded women whose labouring - clearing away wine goblets, wiping the marbled floor, polishing the imposing wood - sustains masculine privilege and power. A deliberate impediment, these ‘wings’ act as blinders on the female vision and restrict communication - a silent seclusion foreshadowed by the scold’s bridle within which the Three Ladies imprison the indignant, garrulous Papageno.

Papageno and Three Ladies.jpg Marta Fontanals-Simmons (2nd Lady), Jonathan McGovern (Papageno), Katie Stevenson (3rd Lady), Katherine Crompton (1st Lady). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

For, darkness and light, good and evil, enlightened and repressed are not black-and-white categories in Jones’ production. She taps into the historical conflict between the Masons and the Catholics, drawing upon the real-life history of one of Wormsley Hall’s former inhabitants, Colonel Adrian Scrope, who played a pivotal role in the conflict that saw an English king beheaded, and Jacobite subversion intertwine with papal condemnation of Freemasonry.

So, the Queen of the Night - bent over an ebony cane and shrouded in black lace, like a mourning Queen Victoria marred with distorted Pierrot-tears - clutches a silver chain from which dangles a crucifix and is accompanied by a red-cloaked Inquisitorial Priest who rudely mis-handles the Holy Books and Masonic gavel resting on the altar, in defiance of the Master of the Lodge’s assumption and exercise of power.

Jones largely eschews the pantomime elements of Schikaneder’s conception: there is no fantastical serpent, rather a salmon-pink pipe which threatens to drown Tamino in his metal-bath when a hydro-electric initiation rite is sabotaged by one of the Three Ladies’ mischievous messengers. Similarly, Papageno is no folksy fall-guy: he arrives, wearing a grubby checked-suit, clutching a rifle and a cage of dead birds, and during ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’ skins a rabbit, only breaking off to pounce on an unfortunate blackbird that lands on the pristine lawn and wring its neck.

Three boys Persson.jpg Three Boys (Dionysios Sevastakis, Frederick Jemison, Lucas Rebato). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

But, there remains a sense of fun and fantasy. The Three Boys, sporting brutal page-boy hair-cuts and white ruffs, glide elegantly on white roller-skates amid the maze; the Three ladies whip out an I-pad, rather than a formal miniature, so that Tamino can admire the Queen’s beautiful daughter as she frolics with delicate grace.

Jones balances danger and daftness: Pamina’s reddened wrists speak of suffering, while Monostasos dons a butcher’s apron and is accompanied by a team of tattooed heavies clutching cleavers and meat-hooks from which dangle dripping joints of meat. But, through the darkness shine chinks of light. There are hints of liberation to come when the dulcet strains of Tamino’s ‘pipes’ - a prototype gramophone replacing the conventional magic flute - do not charm the feral beast but ‘digitally’ open the windows of Sarastro’s Lodge and temporarily release the hooded women from bondage, permitting them a few moments of communion and conversation. The ‘hand-maidens’ sneakily peer at the rituals in the Hall and giggle over the handsome prince, and at the close Papagena escapes by climbing through a window to stand astride in hunting boots and orange jodhpurs which match her gloriously tumbling red locks, flinging a dead bird aside as she points a hunting gun at Papageno whom she has firmly in her romantic sight-lines.

Tamino and Papageno.jpg Benjamin Hulett (Tamino), Jonathan McGovern (Papageno). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

If this all sounds like too many concepts and convergences, then the strands may well be too numerous and coincidental to cohere with clarity. But, Jones is aided by a superb cast. Benjamin Hulett’s prince exudes confidence and poise from the first; ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ is suavely shaped with earnestness and purpose, and this Tamino is every inch the hero. Indeed, he needs every ounce of resolution and reason, for his be-trousered Pamina, Louise Alder, is no passive heroine. The shining gleam of Alder’s soprano is complemented by the forthrightness of feisty self-determination. When Monostatos threatens to drag her back to captivity, Pamina grabs Papageno’s gun to ward off her abusive assailant and his mindless gang - a more effective deterrent than the bird-catcher’s chimes. ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ aches with beautiful limpidity and real anguish, the falling phrases dropping exquisitely, like delicate gasps of suffering.

Cresswell and Alder.jpg James Creswell (Sarastro), Louise Alder (Pamina). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Jonathan McGovern uses his rich, rounded baritone to inject beguiling character-colour into a Papageno deprived of his customary bumpkin appeal; this bird-catcher is no fairy-tale huntsman but is full of genuine and changing emotions. In ‘Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen’, he and Pamina reflect on the duties of marital love - “higher purpose is our guide,/ and nothing is nobler than Wife and Man./ Man and Wife, and Wife and Man,/ attain divinity”, a potent contradiction to Sarastro’s misogyny - as Pamina smartens Papageno up in readiness for romance, picking the dirt and dust from his jacket, and tidying his hair. And, her make-over does the trick: at the close, Papageno and his longed-fore Papagena (a sparklingly vivacious Lara Marie Müller) gleefully anticipate the multiplying brood they will spawn as they stumble out of their clothes with comic enthusiasm and affection.

As the Queen, Sen Guo impressed with the beautiful fullness of her stratospheric ascents, more than compensation for an occasional lack of glinting edge. Her Three Ladies - Katherine Crompton, Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Katie Stevenson - formed a particular mellifluous trio, the individual voices distinctly characterised and sweetly blended. Adrian Thompson’s Monostatos was, if rude of manner, sufficiently eloquent vocally to win at least a little of our sympathy. James Creswell was stentorian but warm of tone as Sarastro, balancing menace with benevolence. Any threat that the former might preside was undercut by Jones’ deft and wry direction: ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was punctuated by voting rounds, signalled by the orchestra’s ‘three knocks’, in which the brotherhood were gradually cajoled into their raising hands in agreement, before the soporific effects of wine and Sarastro’s wordiness led heads to nod. This was typical of the detailed choreography which characterised the production, and the Three Boys were as deft at rescuing first Pamina and then Papageno from their suicidal miseries as they were wicked on wheels.

In the pit, Christian Curnyn largely ignored the weightiness of the accumulating concepts on stage and allowed the score to run lightly and fleetly. The weavings of the oboe and clarinet, the enlightened singing of the flute, the propulsion driven by the bassoon, elegant strings and noble horns all lifted the spirits. The overture was pacy and though Curnyn allowed for a little spaciousness at the start, he did not let the spoken dialogue and sequence of slow-ish arias in Act 2 create a lull.

In this visually enchanting and intellectually thought-provoking production, Jones interweaves copious ideas into a multifarious concept which has the sophisticated unfathomability of a calculus equation. But, that seems to be her point: counter-voices and compromise are the antidote to oppressive totalitarianism. The ‘cleverness’ never excludes human warmth and love. And, at the close, the azure blue skies and cotton wool clouds which beam from the Masonic telescreens push aside the Queen’s nocturnal thunderstorms - and those cumulonimbus that threatened to deluge the first night of this summer’s festival - as characters and audience alike emerge from Alice’s nightmare to return to a more enlightened reality.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Pamina - Louise Alder, Tamino - Benjamin Hulett, Papageno - Jonathan McGovern, Sarastro - James Creswell, Queen of the Night - Sen Guo, First Lady - Katherine Crompton, Second Lady - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Third Lady - Katie Stevenson, Monostatos - Adrian Thompson, Speaker - Richard Burkhard, Papagena - Lara Marie Müller, Elder - Adam Temple-Smith, Elder - James Ioelu, First Boy - Aman de Silva, Second Boy - Lucas Rebato, Third Boy - Frederick Jemison, Red Priest (silent) - Stuart Thorn; Director/Designer - Netia Jones, Conductor - Christian Curnyn, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus.

Garsington Opera, Wormsley; Thursday 31st May 2018.

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