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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How The Mare throws gender, race and even language into flux

Mary Gaitskill's new novel presents an agonising world of "nice" and "nasty", where moral choice is always constrained.

I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.

The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”

Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.

Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.

Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.

“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.

The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”

Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.

It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.

The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.

Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt