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The Magic Flute review at Waterperry Opera Festival, Oxfordshire – ‘thoughtful and engaging’

The cast of The Magic Flute at Waterperry Festival Opera. Photo: Greg Goodale
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Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder’s 1791 opera is a defence of their shared involvement with freemasonry. Its unique blend of the fantastical, the philosophical and popular low comedy focuses on a mysterious brotherhood superintended by cult-leader Sarastro and opposed by the malign Queen of the Night.

For a long time commentators interpreted the former as a benign spiritual ruler, but these days his authoritarian rule is increasingly viewed with suspicion – especially his clear desire to keep women within their place.

One of the strengths of Laura Attridge’s open-air amphitheatre production for Waterperry Opera Festival, in effective designs by Rachel Szmukler, is to tackle Sarastro’s misogyny head-on.

Eleanor Penfold’s hard-done-by Queen of the Night may still be the piece’s chief villain – but her resentment at the widespread rejoicing in Sarastro’s victory at the opera’s close is palpable.

Up-and-coming singers are prominent in the cast, each bringing something worthwhile to the table. The Queen’s indomitable spirit is exemplified in Penfold’s plucky high notes. John Porter’s healthy tenor maintains Tamino’s high juve lead profile, nicely complemented by Isabelle Peters’ lyrically expressive Pamina.

Nicholas Morton’s Papageno is engaging if somewhat upmarket for Mozart’s bloke-in-the-street bird-catcher, while Stephanie Hershaw more than earns her keep as a richly comic Papagena.

Most striking of all is Tristan Hambleton’s trenchant Sarastro – a dominating presence despite the character’s clear moral ambiguity.

The small chorus does its work well, coming over with plenty of punch in the impressive acoustic; the 13-piece period-instrument band is less consistent, the strings at times ragged.

But conductor Bertie Baigent proves a fine judge of tempo and keeps the score on forward drive all evening.

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Thoughtful and entertaining open-air staging of Mozart in the second season at Waterperry Opera Festival