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Ten years ago
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Die Zauberflöte

I was 14 the first time I saw Mozart's "The Magic Flute" played. I had listened to very little opera beforehand (and never seen any on stage), and it was rather an experience. It was part of the Opera Ball arranged by some people in Oslo (I recommend it), and was played in the old opera. Everyone was dressed in period costume, and the opera itself was followed by a proper ball and then the only disco I have ever enjoyed (it is strange how the experience of a disco is improved with a bit of crinoline and nice hats) before we had breakfast (still in costume) at the Grand Hotel. In short, this particular opera has had a very special place in my heart.

When I heard
a) that Tor had never been to an opera (which is not altogether surprising, as he has for years claimed to hate all plays where people burst into song -- with key exceptions (the ones he has seen))
b) that Cambridge's Shadwell Opera would be preforming an opera in the old Rosslyn Chapel
and finally
c) that this opera would be "The Magic flute"
there was of course nothing that would stop me going (and dragging Tor along, no matter what he said on the subject).

As it turns out, Tor was not at all opposed to the plan. Perhaps the fun of the Swan Lake had convinced him all this high culture can be well worth the money; perhaps he just saw the fanatical glint in my eyes and did not dare contradict me. We will never know.

At any rate, we dressed in our finest (as you do when going to an opera), and set off on the #15 bus with our friends. It quickly became apparent that this was a low budget performance, but don't for a second think that that counts against it. There was only the stage and props. But that discounts the truly brilliant backdrop of the cathedral itself. It is tiny. And beautiful. Even when in the middle of refurbishments. This lack of painted background meant that the responsibility for conjuring up situations lay squarely on the singers themselves, and I must say they carried it off admirably.

Resistant to change as I am, I was rather worried when I noticed a pair of worn, rather modern shoes on stage before it all started, and my fears (a modern take on it all) were confirmed as Tamino stormed on stage dressed in rather modern clothing, clutching some sort of alcoholic beverage. And then the singing began, and I forgot all about it.

There is something horribly annoying about very young people who are really very good at things you are not good at. And I am fairly sure none of these people are older than me. And they are really very good at singing. Opera. Properly. I was only annoyed for very short periods, though. Most of the time I was captivated.

I am not sure how well known the plot of this opera is. It is famous for its freemason-links (as both Mozart and the writer of the libretto, Schikaneder, were masons), and when you see it it really is rather obvious. I have no idea, of course, what masons do at their meetings (but I would pay handsomely to find out). As it is, I can only rely on Mozart and Tolstoy for my information. It is sketchy, but at least fairly consistent (submission to ordeal, silence, fire, water, illumination, that sort of thing).

The prince Tamino is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the wizard Sarastro. She claims he is evil, and promises Tamino her daughter in marriage if he will do it. As it turns out, Sarastro is not the evil one, but an enlightened head of a brotherhood that wants Tamino to become initiated in their mysteries. That is a very simplified version of events, but you get the idea. He is told that he is walking in darkness and ignorance, and that only when he has braved the ordeals of the brotherhood can he be united with Pamina and destroy her mother (who, disgracefully, is a woman living without a man, and therefore obviously a dangerous deviant -- I suspect feminist critics would have a field day with this libretto).

The initiates were handled wonderfully in this staging of the opera, I must say. The costumes were at once genius and horrendous. The genius lay in their simplicity. Here was a group of young men dressed in identical grey sweatpants, with a blue musical key symbol (differing depending on their voices, I think -- I am sure Tim will be able to weigh in on that) painted on their chest, with either cassettes or cd's on a string around their necks, and white masks. The second-in-command, who we believe was the Speaker of the Temple, wore a vinyl single around his neck and also a short, very shiny jacket. And the boss himself, Sarastro, wore a purple dressing gown and a proper vinyl LP. He should of course get +50 for wearing a dressing gown. But returning to the horrendous bit: there is something inherently wrong with sweatpants in opera (as there is something wrong with sweatpants in ever other aspect of life (except when you are ill or doing sports (which may be the same thing)) -- but more so).

They are forgiven, however, not a little because of the brilliance of some of the singers. The one we were raving about, both during the interval and when leaving, was Edward de Minckwitz, who played the Speaker. He was rather wonderful, and I would love to see him in a bigger part at some point. The downside to seeing a show put on by a Cambridge group is that the people playing in it, no matter how wonderful, are probably heading for an academic career, not the stage.

I should also mention Papageno. There is of course a comic sideplot. Papageno is the birdcatcher to the Queen of the Night. He joins Tamino on the quest, but always as a lesser candidate, failing miserably where Tamino is steadfast and dramatic. Of course, Papageno's own story ends quite as happily as Tamino's: he meets Papagena. Papageno is comic relief. That is his job, and he did it very well. He had a very good voice, too. And he looked really silly. I am not sure I should even attempt to describe him. Oh, all right, I will try. He was an apparition in skin tight yellow lycra pants, a hawaii-patterned shirt, an orange thin feather boa (at least I think that is what it was), a featherthin apron (also yellow) with birds on, a cap and, oddly, a Fjellräven backpack.

The Queen of the Night deserves respect simply for showing up, knowing that she would have to sing that inhuman high note (in "Der Hölle Rache"), but she did and she did it very hypnotically. Monostatos was also very well played, even scary. And both Tamino and Pamina were very good singers from what I could tell. I could go through the whole cast list and say that they all sang very well, but it wouldn't really make for fun reading. I'll therefore leave it to Tim and Tor and Mary to let me know if I have made any glaring omissions.

I will say this, though: I would gladly have gone back tonight if I had any hope that there might be tickets. It is a marvellous piece of music, and it was performed very well. I will also say this, however: this opera group was formed in January of this year. Honestly, people. Don't they study in this Cambridge place? Is it all lolling around in their colleges, singing?

Comments

Tim,  29.08.09 12:45

You're correct about the initiates: the tenors had a treble clef painted on their chests, and the basses had a bass clef. This corresponds to the clef their music is written in. They also all had a 3/4 time signature on the left arm, a pause on the right, and two joined-up quavers on their back.

It might be worth mentioning that they also had eye-and-nose white masks, blue lipstick and eye-shadow (and sometimes hair dye) and grey body-paint. All of which added to the mysterious effect.

I am about post this review on the Facebook page for the event (which is how I got to hear about it in the first place). So any future commenters: make sure you only say nice things about the performers!

-Tim

Camilla,  29.08.09 13:50

Tor and I were discussing what I had forgotten on our way to Farmers' Market. Clearly I should have mentioned the three ladies (and their costumes), Papagena (who really was sweet) and the three pretty boys (who were really girls). The latter were bugging me the whole time because I was convinced I had seen one of them before and I cannot for the life of me tell you where. But they gave a wonderful show: I kept bursting out giggling the moment I saw them.

Camilla,  29.08.09 17:21

And the conductor! I cannot believe I forgot to mention him. He looked absolutely wonderful with mad hair that would make my hairdresser aunt giggle madly with pleasure and a wonderful swaying way of walking, standing and conducting. We were quite entranced by him during the overture. And he seemed to sing along (but without sound) to everything.

Camilla,  20.06.10 16:51

If anyone is interested, it looks like they will be performing in Rosslyn Chapel again during the Fringe festival.

Tim,  20.06.10 21:50

I would be interested in going to A MIdsummer Night's Dream, but it's probably a bit soon to see The Magic Flute again, wonderful though it was.

Tim,  20.06.10 21:52

Oh, and I forgot to say, I hope they've found a better Sarastro this year. And Edward de Minckwitz (the guy with the awesome voice) is playing Quince in The Dream.

Camilla,  20.06.10 22:31

Oooh. Let me know if you are going to A Midsummer Night's Dream. I want in.
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