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S & H Opera Review

Mozart ‘Die Zauberflöte’ Royal College of Music, Saturday June 21st 2003 (ME)


‘Tamino mein, O welch ein Glück!’

‘Pamina mein, O welch ein Glück!’

‘O Creta fortunata! O me, felice!’

What do these two sets of utterances have in common? Well of course, they’re both from Mozart operas, ‘’Die Zauberflöte’ and ‘Idomeneo’ respectively, but what they also share is the fact that they are emotional climaxes which should at the very least make one feel involved, at best make one shed a furtive tear. Their rendition, and the way they were received, by the audiences at Saturday’s RCM ‘Zauberflöte’ and at last week’s Glyndebourne ‘Idomeneo,’ said it all about their respective performances and productions: where Philip Langridge’s abdicating king was set up for the guffaws he received as he buried his head in his hands (in his wheelchair…) and sobbed the words, the RCM’s Sarah – Jane Davies and Andrew Kennedy were simply allowed to deliver the words with the tenderness and conviction they deserve, and they were received with eye-watering that had little to do with the rampant hay fever around that evening.

This kind of appropriate simplicity, allied to a team of singers which any opera house would be happy to own, has been the hallmark of a whole series of superb productions which I have enjoyed at the RCM over the past two seasons, and anyone wishing to be reminded of what joy may be experienced in the opera house when production, musical direction and singing are all working together towards the same end, should hasten to catch one of the remaining performances of ‘Die Zauberflöte’ at the intimate little Britten Theatre, a space not dissimilar to the vaudeville hall in which Mozart’s work was first heard.

One of the chief pleasures of these productions has been that one can actually feel that one is hearing and seeing a real company: since its inception in 2001, the Britten Opera School has given such singers as Jonathan Lemalu (whose Neptune was the chief – perhaps the only – joy of the Glyndebourne ‘Idomeneo’), Andrew Kennedy, Wendy Dawn Thompson and Claire Surman the chance to develop their abilities in several different roles, allowing audiences the rare privilege of recognizing and identifying with these young but already highly developed talents. On this occasion, one was spoilt for choice in terms of promising singers to note for future reference, since even the Second Lady and First Armed Man were cast from such strength.

When I asked Matthias Goerne why he is not the Papageno in the current ROH ‘Zauberflöte,’ he replied that he had been asked but wasn’t interested in doing it, since the role that now really interests him is that of the Speaker, an apparently small role he sees as the real centre of the piece, the epitome of what music theatre is about: it is no exaggeration to say that James Harrison, who made a great impression on me with his MSND Starveling and his ‘Brockes’ Passion’ Christus, seemed to have truly understood what Goerne meant, and delivered an account of this part (and that of the First Priest) which could hardly have been bettered in setting the tone of gravity and nobility which influenced the entire production. At the opposite end of stage deportment, the Three Ladies were wonderfully over the top in their figure-hugging dresses, and they all sang with vivid characterization and excellent diction – Wendy Dawn Thompson in particular giving an especially vibrant performance. What a thrill it also was to hear a singer actually making something moving out of that key phrase ‘Die Zauberflöte wird dich schützen’, as Claire Surman did, as opposed to throwing it into the wings as so many First Ladies do. The Three Boys, sung by three young ladies as is vastly preferable in my opinion, were beautifully taken by Malin Christensson, Hillevi berg Niska and Elizabeth Ife, and Thomas Walker’s Second Priest and First Armed Man showed much promise.

Jonas Durán’s energetic, highly convincing and punchily sung Monostatos was another laudable assumption to add to this singer’s gallery of roles, and Ana James’ Queen of the Night, though a little affected by nerves in her first aria, was a most impressive introduction to her art: ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was as brilliantly sung as I’ve heard for some time – ‘Grösse Köninginen’ who can fling out a spray of needle-bright coloratura whilst still looking suitably threatening do not exactly grow on trees, and I predict a starry future for this very striking young New Zealander. It is hardly necessary to make any predictions about the career of Sion Goronwy who already has a wide repertoire including treasurable performances in ‘Agrippina’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’ – he is of course ideal for Sarastro, although I felt that on this occasion he was not at his best: he seemed hesitant during the early part of the evening, and whilst ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ was sung with his usual sonorousness and gravity, he was not as steady as he customarily is with the low notes – a cold, perhaps?


Papagena (Cora Burggraaf) and Papageno (Shannon Chad Foley)
Photographer: Chris Christodoulou


And so to the pairs of lovers, the earthly and the ethereal. Cora Burggraaf is yet another RCM ‘stalwart’ who has impressed me in many roles, and her Papagena was adorable, as far distant as could be imagined from her ‘Sex – and – the – City’ Poppea, but equally true to the character and sung with bright, even tone and exact enunciation. Her Papageno, Shannon Chad Foley, was simply the star of the show: his Mr. Gedge in ‘Albert Herring’ had promised much, but I was unprepared for the sheer exuberance, the comic mastery of his performance – for a singer of 26, Papageno is not as easy a role as it seems - and he not only had the audience eating out of his hand, but sang his arias with real style. ‘Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja’ is, of course, a natural hit, but ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ is far more difficult in terms of contrasts in expression and dynamics, and Shannon gave this real feeling, with particularly lovely shaping of phrases such as ‘O so ein sanftes Täubchen.’


Pamina (Sarah-Jane Davies) and
The Queen of the Night (Ana James)
Photographer: Chris Christodoulou


Sarah-Jane Davies is already a fairly experienced Mozart singer, with real stage presence and confidence: it’s no surprise to those who heard her Agrippina and now her Pamina, that she will have the unique honour of being able to divide her time in the 2003-4 season between the ENO Jerwood Young Singers programme and the Postgraduate Diploma in Advanced Opera Studies at the RCM. She has a very agile, smooth, flexible voice, perhaps a little lacking in colour as yet: in ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ she lost a little of the shape of the central lines, but negotiated the very taxing lower part with skill, and she was superb in ensemble and, especially, in recitative, where the shaping and tone of some of her phrases reminded me of Irmgard Seefried.

Andrew Kennedy is one of the ‘stars’ of the Britten Opera School, and he is already making his name ‘out there,’ winning many important prizes and positions such as the Vilar Young Artists Programme. I have now heard him sing no fewer than eight times over the past eighteen months and it has been a real joy to hear and see him go from strength to strength. This is one of those very rare voices, to which I usually refer as ‘an English tenor that isn’t’ – in other words, the singer is English and his tessitura is tenor - but he does not have the other attributes associated with that, such as a reedy quality, a sort of public-school ascetic note and a limited expressive range. Andrew’s voice has a certain Italianate, heroic quality, so appropriate for roles such as Tamino and the great Handel tenor parts, and his performance marked, if not his absolute best, another stage in his exceptionally rapid development as an artist. During ‘Dies Bildnis’ he seemed a little nervous, understandably so, but still gave a beautiful performance of this fiendishly difficult aria, and he was his usual tower of strength in ensemble.

The singers were immensely advantaged by having a production such as this one to work with: Juha Hemánus has a real feeling for movement, line and the formation of credible stage pictures, and he knows how to make encounters between individuals significant - I ask little more of directors, but would that most of them could achieve these simple requirements. Ruari Murchison’s designs, based on contrasts in pastels with vibrant coral and grey / cobalt, and including simple but highly effective stylized trees and ‘paper’ birds and animals, were beautifully effective and absolutely in keeping with the tone taken by the director, as were Jon Buswell’s delicate lighting and Angela Henry’s elegant costumes – I particularly loved the way in which Pamina’s coral / cobalt / grey outfit echoed the costumes of Sarastro and his followers: these are costumes, lighting designs and stage pictures which work as one and give intense pleasure because of it.

Michael Rosewell led the excellent RCM Opera Orchestra in a vibrant, unfussy, highly sympathetic performance of the score: some small glitches with intonation aside, this was playing of a very high standard, especially amongst the strings, and the few occasions when singers and pit were not quite in synch were no more problematic than I have often seen at larger houses in London and elsewhere. There are some terrific voices amongst the chorus, too, and the singing of the great hymn ‘Heil sei euch Geweihten!’ belied the youth of the performers in its nobility and power. Another great evening at this theatre. I hope Antonio Pappano, sitting just behind me, enjoyed it as much as I did – I find it hard to imagine that I shall enjoy Covent Garden’s version as much.

Melanie Eskenazi



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