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)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage