The Magic Flute at Hackney Empire
Despite being one of the world’s best-loved operas, Mozart’s The Magic Flute might not be immediately recognised from Szeged National Theatre’s contemporary staging at the Hackney Empire.
Winner of the 2015 Armel Opera Festival ARTE Audience Award, the Hungarian production transplants Mozart’s composition and Emanuel Schikaneder’s German libretto from a magical land to what looks to be a mental asylum. Opening with the fairytale Prince Tamino (tenor György Hanczár) being dragged into the hospital as a patient by a frisky trio of nurses, the premise is slowly introduced. An intimidating female doctor, who in the imaginary world within the institution walls is “The Queen of the Night”, promises Tamino that if he saves her beautiful daughter Pamina from evil sorcerer Sarastro, the High Priest of a Freemasons-esque order, he can be with her forever. The protagonist then goes on a bumpy mission through the bleak interior to find the girl he has fallen in love with, armed with only a magic flute that can apparently “turn sorrow into joy” and with comic relief character Papageno in tow.
The tale itself is one of love and rejection, warring parents and power struggles and is traditionally set in a far away land awash with magic, beasts and forces of good and evil. However, by placing it in a unique context, Robert Alföldi brings a whole new meaning to the words and action of the characters, the magical world of the dark Queen and evil sorcerer instead becoming a fictitious world of the patients at the asylum.
The cast is flawless in capturing the tone of the performance while also delivering stunning vocals. The brilliant choreography from Robert Alföldi brings epic comedy bordering on panto to the interactions of the characters – it takes restraint not to shout out “she’s behind you!” as a hooded figure appears behind Papageno on stage as he loiters out into the audience. The three white-haired, pink-attired young boys who lead and intervene throughout the story strike something between the sinister kids of the Midwich Cuckoos and Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas.
The infamous aria from award-winning French soprano Marlène Assayag as The Queen of the Night is absolutely pitch perfect, handling the challenging score whilst also maintaining the tongue-in-cheek humour of the role. Éva Kovács is stunning as Pamina and has an evident chemistry musically and physically with György Hanczár’ as Tamino. Szilvia Dobrotka, Boglárka Laczák and Tímea Zita Somogyvári are hilarious as the three lipsticked ladies but really it’s baritone Szilveszter Szélpál Papageno who steals the hearts of the audience, with some air-head charm and looking all the institutionalised patient racing around the stage dressed in a red Adidas zip-up and joggers with a feather tied to his head.
The comic way in which the patients are presented brings a veneer of cheerfulness and fun while simmering underneath is the more sinister reality of these people being entrapped in drug-induced illusion. The production effortlessly combines the traditional and contemporary, comedy and poignancy, and behind the slapstick of the movements, the quality of the delivery of the orchestral and choral scores, conducted by Gergely Vajda, bring to life the emotion of the characters and a depth of meaning.
A cutting-edge reimagining of an opera masterpiece, The Magic Flute more than does justice to its epic score while entertaining a modern audience with black comedy and contemporary themes.
The Magic Flute was at Hackney Empire from 21st until 22nd October 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Magic Flute here: