Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Youth

Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Youth

Article excerpt

British Youth Oopera Peacock Theatre Pavarotti

British Youth Opera celebrates its 21st birthday season with its annual two productions at the Peacock Theatre: this year one is reasonably successful and one a triumph. The moderate success is The Magic Flute, in Jeremy Sams's sharp translation.

Flute is a work which students and young singers go for whenever possible (this is the fourth production BYO has mounted), yet it is extremely taxing, in several ways. At least three of the roles are almost impossible for anyone to sing very well, and the reams of spoken dialogue, in whichever language the opera is being performed in, seem to present a challenge few singers can rise to. The differences of tone, incessant and insistent, between the most lofty seriousness and matey comedy, present a test for a producer which is rarely passed. All that, quite apart from the usual problem of performing Mozart, the most demanding of composers, in a way that does justice to the unique greatness of his spirit, never greater than in this masterpiece.

BYO is fortunate to have the conductor Michael Lloyd steering them through: his conception of the work is traditional, and the size of the Southbank Sinfonia, just under 40 players, ensures that the sound is fairly full but transparent. The most accomplished of the singers is Amar Muchala, originally from Bombay, who performs Tamino in a way that puts him, as he should be, but almost never is, at the centre of the audience's interest. Tamino tends, thanks to the deficiencies of the text, to alternate between being a wimp and a prig, but Muchala, with his handsome looks, romantic acting and eloquent, free singing, gives us a character who develops from being primarily conscious of his royal status to being concerned to discover the fullest potential of being human.

That is an achievement in any production of Flute, but more so in one where the curtain rises as the Overture starts -- villainous practice -- and we see Pamina getting ready for bed and then loitering behind pillars (with what seems to be a ballroom dance going on in the background), so that she is a bewildering and superfluous presence throughout the action; and this Pamina, Tamara Zivadinovic, has neither the presence nor the voice to justify this ubiquity, though she is a decent performer. But she is easily upstaged by her mother, the Queen of the Night, taken with ferocious intensity by Emily Rowley Jones. I'd be surprised if we don't see and hear a lot more of her and Muchala, but I couldn't say the same of the other singers. Papageno is played in a conventional buffo way, and Sarastro has what sounded like an inherently foggy voice.

Plenty of lively touches, though, and the Three Ladies are as fine a set as you would see anywhere, their characters subtly differentiated in a way they almost never are (and exactly as Abert says they should be in his monumental Mozart, which has just been published in English, and remains a phenomenon of research and insight).

Albert Herring grows in stature, for me, each time I see it. BYO's production does it proud by taking it as seriously as Britten intended, with no hamming on the part of anyone, so no condescending mirth and no false pathos (with the exception I'll come to in a moment). …

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