Shrewsbury School

The Magic Flute

Thursday 3 May 2012

When a truly execptional performance is put on by the Music Department, we have got into the habit of asking Martin Knox, after the event, to write the review.  Martin has an extraordinary ability to capture the essence of these events, and to write such a gripping piece that anyone reading it will wish that they had attended.

The two semi-staged performances of The Magic Flute last week surpassed the high expectations that we always have of our musical productions, and we hope that you'll agree that Martin has done justice to them here.

These are good times for the Music Department, with performances individual and collective winning widespread acclaim. It has already been noted in these columns that singing has made particularly rapid progress, to the extent that John Moore was inspired to include a full-length opera in this season’s programme. I confess that when I first heard about the planned “Magic Flute”, I envisaged a cast of professionals, with some student participation, giving us a few extracts, nothing more. It was a serious underestimation of the Director’s vision and of the resources in which he had faith. A bridge too far? Not a bit of it. The adaptation for concert performance, with narrators filling the gaps left by discreet editing, worked a treat in the Alington Hall, never once seeming too long, for all that it lasted over two and a half hours.

For this semi-staged production, the orchestra was placed behind two slightly raised platforms either side of the conductor. The cast, otherwise seated along the walls, came and went with admirable efficiency. First to make an entrance was one of the two guest artists, Robyn Lyn Evans, who brought a superb tenor voice and much charm to the role of Tamino.  His impassioned rendering of the lovely portrait aria set the tone for the evening. I hope we will hear more of him.

In this opera, villainy seems to be associated with top notes, and it was not surprising that the part of the Queen of the Night also went to a professional, Natalie Clifton Griffith, whose vocal agility won rapturous applause. In concert attire and without make-up, she was far from being a Wicked Witch in appearance, but she captured the menace in the score and never sounded in any danger of falling off the musical high wire.

Conversely, the Queen’s opponent, Sarastro, is given the deepest imaginable bass part, and for this, Ed Chapman had the range, if not always the control of pitch. Some of the serene benevolence that lies in the great arias was missing, but the acting was authoritative, helped by excellent diction.

Sienna Holmes is firmly established as the School’s leading soprano, with achievements in recital and oratorio to her credit. To these she added a splendid operatic debut as Pamina, singing and acting with mature command of every aspect of the role. We know she has ample power, but on this occasion it was particularly impressive to hear how movingly she held attention in the quietest passages.

From the moment he strode jauntily onto the stage, Rob Cross was Papageno. Not even the longest round of applause (there were several) could deflect him from his total commitment to the character – and what a mature interpretation it was, rich in wit and pathos. Mastering the art of Singspiel, he slipped seamlessly from speech to song and vice versa, every word and gesture comprehensible and relevant. Months of preparation must have gone into making it all seem so natural on the day.

Similar attention to detail was evident in the acting of Sam Ansloos as Monostatos. His mocking of Papageno’s bells, embellished by a scornful pirouette, was a gem, and his flexible tenor voice was projected with appropriate vehemence. Occasional loss of clarity can be put down to the speed at which he was sometimes required to sing; the overall effect was impressive.

Gus Haynes played the Speaker of the Temple with impeccable diction and an imposing stage presence. He made a valuable contribution to the drama, as did the excellent singers who took the walk-on parts of Armed Men (Tom Fletcher-Wilson and Will Heyes) and Priests (George Fowler and Ali Webb).   The Three Ladies, Teresa Fawcett-Woods, Shannon Morgan, Kate Harrison, and Meredith Lloyd (one of the parts was doubled), also made a beautifully blended sound, though the hazard of projecting words in ensemble was not always overcome. With smaller voices, the Three Spirits, Angus Warburg, Edward Acton, Alex Howard (from Shrewsbury High Prep) nevertheless did manage to get their meaning across - with commendable confidence in what must have been daunting circumstances.

Papagena, sung by Carys Gittins, who was unfortunately omitted from the programme, has not been forgotten here. Her interaction with Papageno was one of the highlights of the whole performance and their final duet was a joyful tour de force, setting up the exhilarating conclusion in which Light triumphs over Darkness, Good over Evil.
The orchestra was very much part of this triumph, as it had been throughout. In spite of restricted rehearsal time, in spite of the length of the work, John Moore managed to conjure sensitive and authentic-sounding accompaniment from his players. Huge credit to the conductor and the music staff. Before the event, I had wondered pessimistically if a piano arrangement might not be safer, but from the first chords of the overture, it was apparent that all would be well. They were truly inspired in the Queen of the Night’s second aria and the Trial by Fire (not enacted) was created for us by a glowing quartet of trombones and the magic flute of Eugene To.

And so to two names that have been saved for the final bow, Jonathan May and Kathryn Turpin, the singing coaches responsible for bringing so much talent to the stage. That they had confidence in their charges is best illustrated by the fact that they resisted the temptation to put themselves forward, content instead with reading the narration – and, along with choirmaster Alex Mason, adding weight to the chorus. Congratulations and gratitude are due.

It is believed that this operatic venture was a “first” for Shrewsbury; let it not be the last. Next year is the Wagner Bicentenary. Now there’s a thought.

Martin Knox

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