A flute as magic as they come

A bold rewriting of Mozart's opera is a slow-burning charmer

The Magic Flute, The Merry Opera Company, Riverside Studios

You can always rely on Kit and the Widow’s Kit Hesketh-Harvey for stylish comedy, so when his latest creation – a bold rewrite of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for The Merry Opera Company – arrived at Riverside Studios it was already a step ahead of the rabble of chamber opera stagings that are currently taking over pubs, warehouses, theatres and churches across London. This is gem of a show, a real slow-burning charmer that creeps under any metropolitan cynicism, disarming with a grin and a quick quip.

Hesketh-Harvey’s concept neatly interweaves Mozart’s final months of life and the composition of The Magic Flute with a performance of the opera itself. Characters and themes bleed from world to world, with the endless bills of the composer’s anxious creditors transformed into the papery monster of the opening, the Mozarts’ domestic servants becoming the Three Ladies, while librettist and collaborator Schikaneder is reworked as the feckless Papageno – Tamino/Mozart’s best friend. Pamina, of course, is none other than Mozart’s own beloved wife Constanza.

It’s elegant, and despite the complexities of the meta-frame all is achieved with the minimum of dramatic fuss. This is a brisk two-hour show and cuts to the music are inevitable. Some may balk at this, but dialogue efficiently plugs any gaps and it avoids a perfect miniature sprawling too fleshily over the much narrower musical margins it so wisely sets itself. The emphasis here is on character and drama rather than music (the show is billed as a hybrid opera-pantomime), and if occasionally this balance feels a little extreme there are also generous compensations.

Nick Allen’s arrangement reduces Mozart’s orchestra to a piano, string trio and a single wind player. The woolly tone of Riverside’s upright is enough to make you weep, but pianist Stephen Hose keeps proceedings moving (occasionally at the expense of the singers), preventing the ubiquitous sag that can blight even the crispest drama. Most of the roles are double or even triple-cast, so you take pot-luck when you go, but it’s worth holding out for Daisy Brown’s Pamina who has the kind of winsome innocence (coupled with the best vocals of the evening) every fairytale princesss should have. Her “Ach, ich fühl's” in particular is beautifully controlled and judged.

Brown and James Harrison’s Papageno are a natural double-act, with the latter’s bumbling heroics greatly enlivened by the wit of Harvey’s translation. The transformation of serving-woman Floti into Papagena works neatly, and their closing duet is enchanting –a foil to the cod-solemnity of the Masonic scenes. Matthew Quirk’s Sarastro struggles in all but his lowest register, irredeemably weakening the weightier episodes, and calling undue attention to the limitations of this production in the disparity of its voices. Joe Morgan’s Tamino by contrast is unusually solid, producing a lovely full tone at the top with not a hint of pinch or nasality, and Claire Egan’s Queen of the Night deserves every cheer she gets for the unexpected comedic cameo of the night (and some excellent coloratura).

This is opera for people who don’t like opera, but more interestingly it’s also opera for those that love it. There’s a lot of affectionate humour here in the self-conscious business of the theatre, and it makes an approachable and intelligent comedy out of what could easily have become a coldly conceptual retelling. Hesketh-Harvey’s Flute is as magic as they come, so follow the chiming of its enchanted bells to the Riverside Studios here in London or catch up with them later in the year as the show tours the UK.

 

Claire Egan as Queen of the Night (Credit: Polly Hancock)
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era