Mozart's loopy-but-indestructible masterpiece The Magic Flute is a mixed blessing for a director. It's a piece that one can bend to almost any sort of concept but which has a very rigid internal centre to it. I'm not talking about black human certainties Mozart confronts, like suicide or rape. Rather, I mean the po-faced social constructs like Sarastro's gentlemen's club, assumed by most to be a Masonic tribute, which has the potential to occupy more than its fair share of the latter half of the opera.
It's an equivocal issue in James Hurley's production for Hampstead Garden Opera's current production at the Gatehouse Theatre. Hurley introduces a clever concept from the start. Possibly borrowing from Bergman (child-centric productions in both The Magic Flute and the child's doll-house-proportioned toy theatre from Fanny and Alexander) he has the unequivocal children of the three boys, or girls in this production, play with dolls that turn out to represent Tamino and Pamina. The parental figures of Sarastro and The Queen of the Night get involved in a rather more seedy game of their own before the Queen takes over, manipulating the doll of Tamino like a voodoo doll. This all happens during the overture: charm, sexual intent, vindictiveness and dark magic. It's a good start.
Whether or not Hurley has managed to explain himself to his cast, or indeed give them sufficient direction though is a different issue. From the outset the acting had patches of glazed functionality - entrances and exits particularly were often not dramatically causal, just the next thing to happen in the score.
This didn't become a problem because there was some pretty good singing going on. William Balkwill's Tamino really got into his stride in the long, high lyric music with solid support from a disparately-voiced but well-blended trio of ladies in Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King. The first of my favourite three performers of the evening was Viki Hart's Queen of the Night, secure in sound but above all committed in character. This really helped carry Hurley's concept some distance - that the central Tamino-Pamina rescue drama might be a psychological construct of a woman at the sharp end of a warped and possibly failed marital relationship.
The next mature performance was that of the Papageno. Like Leporello, it is a gift of a role and baritone Daniel Roddick really fulfilled its potential. He was joined at the height of what the afternoon had to offer by a most remarkable Pamina. Raphaela Papadakis' greatest achievement might have been to have not overbalanced the production. Convincing onstage and with clear, measured diction in dialogue, her singing was a gulfstream of fine technique and emotional connection. Ach, ich fühl's (or, rather, Let me die in this translation by Stephen Fry, originally for Kenneth Branagh's 2007 film) was a rare, transporting, genuinely operatic peroration. For that and other vocal and dramatic commitment she should be commended.
Alongside this melodramatic perspective of the opera is cast the patriarchal ensmble of Sarastro, his followers and people. Chris Borrett's Sarastro is a young but hearty instrument. I would also have liked to have heard much more of the sound Alexandre Garziglia brought to a thoroughly satisfying Speaker. Benjie del Rosario's Monostatos was suitably comic-oily.
I still felt ill at ease though. The end of Act 1 brought us into Sarastro's home, which, with the women in frocks and masks could have started some interesting Eyes Wide Shut reference to the subjugation of women in closed male-run societies. Yet the opportunity lapsed through a general indifference. Conversely, though I enjoyed the pert, lively charm of Ri McDaid-Wren, Pippa Woodrow and Fiona James as the three girls, the dramatically important chastity of the trio was simply discounted with the first of a number of pubescently winsome smirks at the handsome Prince Tamino.
Musically this was a robust performance. The Dionysus Ensemble belied its skeletal corps with dependable playing of the score. All were conducted by an unflappable Oliver Ruthven, despite being necessarily tucked in a corner. The theatrical presentation of the opera did suffer from its shortcomings though. I imagine it is likely that the ensemble were saving a little for the later evening performance, happening as I type this up here.