There is so much to love in this Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert performance of The Magic Flute. Partly, that’s to do with the new narration by David Pountney, read with tongues in cheeks by Thomas Quasthoff and Neil John Gibson. Right out of the trap this makes clear that this isn’t opera as historical artefact. Schikaneder's libretto is a faintly ridiculous envelope for a clutch of wonderful arias, anyway. While having narrators who play the characters along with the singers is, initially, slightly confusing, the double act both trims some of the fat in Mozart’s ‘singspiel’ and brings the comedic elements within modern grasp.
Partly, it’s to do with the fantastic cast. Ilker Arcayürek and Julia Bullock make for a very sweet Tamino and Pamina, their lyricism together well balanced. Gyula Orendt sings boisterously as Papageno. Kathryn Lewek and Brindley Sherratt rather steal the show as a justifiably furious and a believably wise Queen of the Night and Sarastro. Lewek, particularly, not only hits the big notes in her famous aria, but sheds clear light on the coloratura which ornaments them.
Mostly, though, that’s to do with the musical stewardship of Maxim Emelyanychev in his role as the SCO’s principal conductor. Brought up onto the stage, the colours of Mozart’s score are dazzling. The violins are allowed to sit back, allowing for beautiful detail in the brass and woodwind. And what a lick he takes it at, banging furiously at the celesta keyboard on which he doubles up. As a result, the orchestra has the feel of pulsing. When he pulls back, and allows the titular flute space to breathe the effect is, well, magic.
But what to do with an opera which, quite unironically, intones lines like “without [a man’s] direction, woman goes astray,” or “you’ll triumph like a man”, or “men have a strong mind, they think about what they say”, and has a strong suit in capturing women for love? I could go on. In a programme subtitled “community over chaos”, this shittier end of eighteenth century Viennese comedy feels out of place. What’s more, in a production which takes delightful liberties with everything from the narrative framing to the celesta part in Papageno’s famous aria, there seems little reason why this need be the case.
The Magic Flute played at Usher Hall, 12 Aug