Tickets for ‘The Magic Flute’ were like gold-dust; all three performances at the weekend were sold out to packed houses. The reason was that this latest ROHM production, combining the best of European singers and musicians, was the first fully-fledged opera to be staged in the diminutive Royal Opera, House of Musical Arts with its 500-seat capacity. It was a grand collaboration of Mozart’s final 1791 work under the experienced baton of Swiss conductor, Diego Fasolis who founded the small orchestra of period instruments, ‘I Barocchisti’ in 1993 when he inherited the chamber Choir of Swiss Radio, RSI.
The production was directed and designed by Davide Livermore who created The Opera! (2017) and Lakmé (2019) for ROHM. The video Design Company, D-Wok specialises in ‘using innovative technologies to create virtual sets and video-mapped sceneries for many operas’.
The sets themselves were simple yet effective, using the hull of a wrecked boat which provided a tiered stage when turned, or sand dunes which could be slid on and off easily and conventional curtains were substituted with versatile, multi-purpose lattice work.
The whole opera was set in Oman; the shipwreck at the beginning explaining Tamino’s lost soul and quest, the Arabian desert for local context while all the cast were dressed in dishdashas or Middle Eastern garb (designed by Mariana Fracasso).
Other local input came with the involvement of nine singers from the Omani Opera Choir Group in the chorus, their Chorus Master Martin Steffan taking the singing role of Priest and fourteen Omani extras in the cast. The accompanying programme book did great justice to the soloists, sets and costumes, providing full colour souvenir photographs.
While the scenery was evocative and fluid — the stained-glass peacock feathers of the Temple Gates were stunning – the movement of sea, clouds or desert sand storms became distracting when singers were developing the plot. The final projections of Al Jabal Al Akhdhar and Wadi Shab to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil looked rather like a promotion for the Omani Tourist Board.
The premiere of this production on Thursday night boasted brilliant opera singers from the world stage; some established, others emerging. The Three Ladies in the opening scene stated how handsome was their foundling Tamino, a Javanese Prince in purple tartan trousers, whom they rescued from a sea-serpent/monster, and this was coupled with a delightfully lyrical voice in the British-Australian tenor, Alasdair Kent.
On stage for most of the ‘Singspiel’, Alasdair more than rose to the huge challenge in a vocally sustained, artistically dramatic performance. At the end of Act 1 he sang with great pathos, ‘How strong is thy magic tone’ to the Magic Flute of the title, given for protection during his three trials, played enchantingly by Stefano Bet from the pit.
Opposite Tamino, the abducted daughter of the vengeful, ‘Queen of the Night’ Pamina was portrayed beautifully by Albanian lyric soprano, Enkeleda Kamani on her second visit to the Sultanate since her captivating performance with Leo Nucci last October.
Her voice was as light and engaging as her presence on stage, dressed as an exotic purple Princess from an imaginary Arabian story, her intonation was faultless and agile across her considerable range.
Against a starry desert sky in the second Act her plaintive aria, ‘Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden’ was tender and poignant, wondering at Tamino’s pledge of silence, the quiet control in her upper register spell-binding. The ‘Queen of the Night’ was portrayed with impeccable accuracy and venom by the prolific young coloratura soprano, Aigul Khismatullina from the ex-Soviet Republic of Tatarstan. In Act Two Ms Khismatullina performed the famous Aria, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’, including a chilling top F, to absolute perfection in intonation and gesture, receiving lengthy applause in the curtain call.
With weighty gravitas, the impossibly deep register of Sarastro’s arias was superbly placed by Slovakian Bass, Štefan Kocàn. At the opening of Act Two with the haunting male chorus of priests, his performance of the hymn-like, ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was grounded and profound. Later, ‘Within these Sacred Halls’ was sung with stately compassion as he gave guidance to Tamino in tolerance, brotherhood and forgiveness. Austrian Baritone Marcus Werba inhabited the full gambit of emotions in a complex Papageno, the colourful bird catcher — a character created by the theatre owner, Schikaneder, who commissioned the work, wrote the libretto and played the role himself — from amusing buffoonery, entering through the audience, to a more contemplative persona. The Magic Bells given to protect Papageno were echoed in the pit from Andrea Marchiol on Celesta as he sang the famous folk-like song, ‘A girl or a woman’ so charmingly.
The Three Ladies themselves were deliciously mischievous from the opening scene until their hasty disappearance in Sarastro’s Temple of the Egyptian gods. They panned seductive flirtatiousness, energetic, comic spoofing and lively, playful pluckiness as a trio of scheming harpies throughout. The three child-spirits, boys from Münchner Knabenchor were equally brilliant as surreal genii from the other world. Livermore imbued more boyish theatricality than usual without detracting from the sublime, serene quality of their close, boy-soprano harmony.
Another strong, powerful bass performance came from Viennese-born Kurt Rydl as Temple Speaker, filling the hall with authority throughout. Romanian tenor, Marius Brenciu as the base, repulsive Monostatos was excellent in the patter-song, ‘All feel the joys of love’, amusingly nimble and clever as he degenerated into a slapstick character of ridicule.
Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte, is rich in mythological symbolism and values of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons and the work is littered with references lightly disguised in Sarastro’s (Zoroastrian) god of fire, a polarity between sun and moon, good and evil to an elevated spiritual quest for human fulfilment. Its coating as a fairy tale means that there is something for everyone, remaining one of the most enduring tales in the repertoire.