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)

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle