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)
SIPA PRESS/REX
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge