Mozart’s opera contains so many elements – fairytale, quest story, spiritual journey, low comedy and high-minded defence of Freemasonry – that any production is hard put to it to keep them all in play while preserving some semblance of unity.
Interviewed in the programme booklet to his Opera North production, James Brining is clearly aware of the magnitude of the task but equally determined to create a show “that has something to say about today”.
That’s surely the right goal, and if what he has achieved only partially holds together he and his design team plus a strong cast certainly keep the audience involved.
The show starts with a young girl putting on an LP of the overture which launches the opera while in the background a row kicks off at an upmarket dinner party; she remains present as an observer for much of the action.
Exactly where and when the events portrayed are happening is uncertain, but Sarastro – traditionally presented as the wise leader of a spiritual brotherhood – registers here as a misogynistic creep running a sinister cult; there’s more than a hint of The Handmaid’s Tale about proceedings. At the end his followers appear to liberate themselves, and one can only cheer them on.
If the narrative trajectory of the piece feels insecure, the music-making under period-specialist conductor Robert Howarth maintains spirited tempos and energised textures.
Vocally notable are Australian-Chinese tenor Kang Wang, whose vital, brilliant tone is a major asset; South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu, whose Pamina grows ever more expressive as the evening proceeds; John Savournin’s firm, authoritarian Sarastro; Gavan Ring, whose Irish brogue forms an important part of his charm offensive as Papageno; and Samantha Hay, who hits all the high notes as the Queen of the Night.