It is May now, this magical time of the year whence the blossom covers the pavements of Palmerston Park and a curtain of stress falls over the young souls studying for their exams just over the road. The disparity between those places is actually stunning, yet it feels strangely appropriate. A similar feeling persisted as I stepped into the Mayflower, the floor already flooded with a myriad of fitted blazers and wine glasses. As a simple student on a press pass, I could not be more out of place… or so I thought.
You see, the words ‘theatre’ and ‘opera’ carry certain images and expectations. For centuries, they’ve been synonymous with high art. I definitely had expectations of my own; I knew that it was appropriate for younger audiences, yet I couldn’t help thinking it would be serious, distinguished and proper, whatever that might mean to you. The reception area definitely did not alleviate that impression. Since its construction in 1928, the Mayflower has established its prestige as the largest theatre in the south of England and it shows. Attending it was definitely an experience in and of itself, almost like entering an alternate reality.
This brings us to the production itself – Welsh National Opera’s rendition of The Magic Flute. As an English translation of Mozart’s original Die Zauberflöte, the execution of the musical score complemented the vocal performance beautifully; from the orchestral pieces preceding both acts to the coordination between the foley and the actions on stage, the cohesion was subtle but actually mesmerising in the way it pulled everything together. It definitely set the tone and took my hand, bringing me into this strange world.
Speaking of the world, it is worth mentioning the creative use of the the set. The multidimensional corridor of doors in the sky was bizarre and fantastical, providing depth within the scenery – seeing the three layers rising to reveal a backdrop full of stars was simply captivating as the Queen of the Night (Samantha Hay) entered the stage for the first time. Equally, I thought that the lighting in general was used to great effect. While most scenes were simply lit in a soft, warm glow, the lighting became cooler and dimmer as insincere intentions of certain characters were revealed. This culminated in the final moments of the play as Tamino and Pamina traversed through their final challenge in the Temple of the Wise, with the lights dimmed almost to nothing to put focus on the use of panels in the floor and the bouts of fire and water glowing in the dark. This tense climax definitely contrasted with the resolution of the story, which was bathed in the familiar warm glow again. With technicalities such as these, they often remain unnoticed, which is somewhat appropriate as to avoid disrupting the audience and the overall immersion. However, it was so well construed that it is worth noticing. This is especially since the base of the set was not extremely elaborate in its aesthetics; small details such as the lighting can make or break the tone and in this case it was just stunning to watch and observe.
Of course, an opera would not be made without the vocal performance. While I am not an expert on the subject by any means, I was utterly captivated by the performance from each member of the cast. From the strong start by the Three Ladies to Pamina’s sorrowful lament in her time of need, the vocal sustenance simply amazed me. However, the moment of the night most definitely goes to Samantha Hay and her rendition of the Queen of the Night aria. It is one of the most emotional pieces in the play as well as one of the most challenging pieces known by the general public as it is easily recognisable outside of the performance. As such, the famous note variation that fluctuates to this extent requires incredible vocal control and breath support, which was executed beautifully by Hay. I would argue that, as a student who has not had an opportunity like this before, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
These performances were also visually beautiful, particularly due to the costumes. Personally, I thought that the protagonists – Tamino and Pamina – did not have particularly interesting character designs, although that could be a reflection of their basic roles as the fateful hero and the damsel in distress. What I found most interesting was the monochromatic design of the members in the Temple of the Wise – the orange suits, bowler hats and umbrellas were an interesting choice, considering that the colour is equally associated with joy and caution. This unanimous appearance and their submission to Sarastro almost felt cult-like, with the leader clad in all white. However, the designs that were most unique and enjoyable as a result were the bird-like feather frenzy of Papageno and Papagena, respectively. They were arguably the most colourful couple in the show and it reflected their frenetic energy. Papagena’s transformation was especially delightful as it only provided more room for comedic relief, revealing a soul as vibrant as Papageno’s under her grey rags.
Mark Stone and Claire Hampton have done a brilliant job at portraying the couple, meaning that the sombre scenes were broken up with moments of sheer hilarity. Just seeing their characters interact brought a smile to my lips, as it wasn’t the stereotypical tale of star-crossed lovers like the leading couple – they had a sense of chemistry that wasn’t quite there between Tamino and Pamina or even Pamina and Papageno, although this is likely more due to the original script as opposed to the performances from the actors, who captured their roles well in this fable. It was actually delightful to see them finally come together and the aftermath of this union in the form of tiny Papagenos popping up all over the stage was definitely a comedic highlight.
All in all, the Welsh National Opera has put out an incredible performance of a well-known classic. While the underlying messages about the roles of men and women may not be necessarily favourable in our current social climate, it was executed so well that it was hard to come back to the real world and the crowded reception during the interval. It is definitely the epitome of an alternate reality that is equally bizarre and beautiful.