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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday November 21 2014

Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges.  Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute.  GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute.  She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us.  As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things.  GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it. 

Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music.  Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business.  Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back.  This moved the action along with minimal fuss.  They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene.  Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense.  The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.

The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it.  Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult.  Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.

Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending.  In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation.  There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness.  These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.

The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals.  The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes.  All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.

As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack.  It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes.  This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere.  But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature.  Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable.  (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific.  This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction.  GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best.  Yes, really.

The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too.  But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it.  Sensational.  Watch out for her.  Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name.  (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.

But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps.  As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing.  You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances.  You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday.  There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance.  The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout.  These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.

I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them.  I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects.  Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it.  But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career.  So, fingers crossed.