Dial M for Mozart

Aces high: the three boys, Henry Balding, Finlay A'Court and Ben Miller make a flying visit

The Magic Flute

Nevill Holt, Market Harborough
*****

WHILE opera in Birmingham thrives, with Graham Vick’s cutting-edge Birmingham Opera Company, and regular visits from Welsh National Opera, and Nottingham can similarly count on Opera North, some outer reaches of the Midlands traditionally do less well. 

However in one area things are looking up. Thanks to some inspired leadership from a seemingly eternally young Midland entrepreneur, David Ross, who dreamed up phone giant The Carphone Warehouse with his friend Charles Dunstone while both were boys at Uppingham School, there is to be a regular home-grown opera festival at Nevill Holt, partway between Uppingham and Market Harborough. 

This fledgling company, with proven young talent at the helm and a desire and determination to strike out on its own while accepting nothing but the best in production values and musical standards, is now, from 2013, a reality. 

To be fair, Nevill Holt, a hilltop eyrie on the Leicester-Rutland border, which overlooks the strikingly beautiful Welland Valley (in Northamptonshire), has already had a run-in apprenticeship for opera: in fact, a second-to-none, top-class training. 

Early in its life Carphone Warehouse, via Dunstone and Ross, became the major sponsor of the newly formed Grange Park Opera, near Winchester. It was a major success story. The quality of productions there at Alresford was frankly second to none for an out-of-London company. Imaginative repertoire flourished, alongside the classics, and conductors and stage directors of real talent were engaged. Grange Park hurtled quickly to the top. 

Seeing an opportunity, Ross, who has invested some millions in purchasing and restoring the Jacobean mansion Nevill Holt, induced the powers that be to step in and help him form an offshoot at his newly purchased manor house: a former Prep School whose formidable character and notable war record still shows on the castle-like complex’s display boards. 

Pamina (the delightful Rhian Lois) faces her (unbeknowns to her) father Sarastro (Richard Wiegold) and his horsey retinue

Young performers got showcased. The Grange Park-led project proved a gold mine for young hopefuls looking to carve a name in opera, and to some extent it still is; for one of Nevill Holt Opera’s prime aspirations, now that it has officially gone solo this season, and especially now that it has a purpose-built opera venue cleverly adapted out of the capacious former stables (this being hunting country par excellence), is to develop youthful talent to the full. 

And some talent they have amassed. In this first official season the new company has delivered a Mozart Magic Flute that - from the overture’s famous first bars - proved out of this world for directorial invention, wry wit, subtle visuals and tip-top musical standards that surely put it on a par with Grange Park itself. 

For a start, in its Artistic Director (also conductor) and accredited Stage Director, the former still in his mid-thirties, it has acquired a pair of prodigious and proven talents. Oxford graduate Nicholas Chalmers, who ultimately carries the can but is also a conductor of patent intelligence and rare musical sensitivity, is a young force to be reckoned with.  

An ex-Oxford organ scholar (at Lincoln College: one predecessor was the prodigiously talented present music director of Merton, Ben Nicholas), Chalmers holds chorus master responsibilities in London (including, early in his career, at ENO); heads another stage company (Second Movement Opera); and is the leading light of Northern Ireland Opera, a new company that has transformed operatic standards in Belfast (till recently at all-time low), scoring critics’ accolades with a line of hits including Menotti, Britten, Puccini’s Tosca (the Irish Times award for best opera) and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, with Verdi’s Macbeth on the menu shortly. He is also – commendable for one not long out of nappies himself - committed to bringing on younger talent.  

The musical range and intellectual adroitness of this young man who now heads up the whole Nevill Holt outfit is evident. What is not, is the detail: the command Chalmers at so modest an age has of his players, the thoroughness and acuity of his leads to singers, his sheer competence, or the old head on young shoulders that manages the difficult but vital balances in Mozart with singular deftness and artistry.  

Getting off: Papageno (Alexander Robin Baker) virtually eaten alive by the three ladies (Natasha Day, Clare Presland, Laura Murphy)

His pedigree shows that Chalmers is a young man on his way: but command of this significant English provincial outfit, and at so crucial a time, will test even his skills. This Magic Flute boded well, for him and for the company, although doubtless there are significant tests, and some key artistic decisions, yet to come. 

Chalmers’ achievement, and Nevill Holt’s, might be infinitely less were it not for his Second Movement collaborator and Northern Ireland Opera’s own Artistic Director, Oliver Mears, who turned his prodigious talents to staging this Flute. Mears has proved himself way beyond the obvious venues: not just at Edinburgh, or with Pimlico Opera (Grange Park’s other alter ego), but at Aldeburgh, Leeds with Opera North, and with one of the great European touring companies, Holland’s National Reisopera. To direct Martinů in the Czech Republic requires just plain chutzpah. 

Simon Lima Holdsworth, the Nevill Holt Designer, is effectively the third of the team, having shared in, or more likely generated, many of the other pair’s biggest Northern Ireland successes. It was his designs for this Magic Flute – Sarastro’s conference room (a visually knockout opening to Act 2), the elaborate wall cupboards which conceal Tamino’s surprisingly lifelike snake, indeed all the (thanks to a chorus of astounding all-round talents) perfectly, and silently, manoeuvred three dimensional flats and blocks that kept reshaping themselves into wholly new spaces – that made the impact of this Mozart so strong.  

Presumably Mears, not he, did any ‘choreography’, for at one point four male members of the chorus pirouetted with garden shears in one of the funniest such set pieces I can remember; abetted by the snipping image, their masculine prowess seemed even more in doubt for the fact they could easily have been Matthew Bourne protégés in tutus and ballet shoes. Young baritone Aaron O’Hare was the plum – musically as well; but then we all acquire our favourites (nice to see chorus getting full individual credits in the programme, a rare departure, a bonus for company spirit and yet another plus to Nevill Holt’s entire administrative thinking). 

This well-managed company’s casting is exemplary. I ought to pick out Australian Alison Bell (Queen of the Night) first, for I slightly thumbs-downed her performance elsewhere. Her past credits lie seemingly somewhere between the impressive and the astounding, for she has clearly worked wonders with some of the classic, most challenging big roles: Olympia, Lakmé , Strauss’s frisky, trilling Zerbinetta, Wagner’s exquisite Wood Bird (Siegfried, notably for Longborough).

Monostatos (Daniel Norman) plans to have his wicked way with Pamina (Rhian Lois) despite Papageno (Alexander Robin Baker)

Bell is a contemporary performer too, soaring high for the avant-garde Hungarian Peter Eötvös, Berio and Stravinsky, and in the famously off-the-stave top part in Mahler’s early Das Klagende Lied. 

Why did one blow more cold than hot over her Queen of the Night? Not because of her ability to pinpoint that chillingly difficult coloratura: she had that, and mostly the notes, in buckets. But it’s because a top drawer icy monarch manages to import something of the mystery of the nocturnal into that rendering. This fell a bit in between: neither razorish nor mysterious.  

Certain organ stops engender harmonics that make your hair stand on end, and the human voice in high tessitura does much the same (witness Cyndia Sieden, Ariel in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest at Covent Garden, Copenhagen, Strasbourg and Santa Fe, or Marlis Petersen as the Nachtigal/Nightingale in Walter Braunfels’ The Birds of Aristophanes in Geneva/Lausanne). Beautifully introduced by Holdsworth’s black starry sky design, Bell had it all going for her. What she offered was a vocally agile monster, but somehow neither a compelling nor an electrifying one. 

Elsewhere, happily, it’s all praise. Anthony Gregory’s Tamino delighted from his first serpentine entry: not the most mellifluous, ie honeyed, of tenors, but a voice full of character and allure. Chalmers three ladies were sensuous and so staggeringly together – a kind of rhythmic showpiece at the very start of the show –it was difficult to tell if this was owed more to them or to the conducting. Natasha Day, Claire Presland and Laura Murphy were their names, Murphy especially wonderful on the all-but-contralto lowest (mezzo) part.  

The Papageno, Alexander Robin Baker, was singing the role for the first time. You’d think he had done it many times over, and on some pretty good stages too. All the laughter was there, clever touches and little half-gestures, as much performer as director; but a poignancy too of a rather unusual kind. When he gets is Papagena (Caroline Kennedy), he gets a soul mate too: she will be capable of more than doing the washing up and nurturing their doubtless Bach-size family. Rhian Lois’s Pamina was not just charming, but increasingly cogent: I wasn’t convinced by Mears’s and Holdsworth’s handling of the initiation – just a fraction weak – but she was clearly a fit candidate, and as with good Paminas, you felt if things didn’t go right she could revert to being a Queen of the Night, like mummy, herself. There was a hint of steel. 

Some of the comedy stemmed, unwittingly, from Richard Wiegold’s wonderfully richly sung Sarastro. Partly because he tends to deliver his masonic arias like a small prep school boy on speech day (all the funnier as, over and above massive voice, he is in fact a huge as well as touching presence) and partly because despite handsome scarlet hunting jacket he seems less in control of affairs than his acolytes, notably Paul Carey Jones’s splendidly delivered (and more baritone than bass-baritonish) Speaker.

Anthony Gregory, a fine Tamino with a voice full of character and allure

  And there was more high jinks: partly because Nevill Holt had recruited possibly the funniest, most elastic and mischievous performer on the current British operatic stage, lyric tenor Daniel Norman, who with Mears’s attentive direction serves up one of the most side-splitting – and purely mellifluous - chauffeur Monostatoses I can remember. And partly because of the boys. If ever there was icing on the cake, it was these three.  

Nevill Holt boldly resisted the idea of falling back on girls (or the three women) to sing the symbolically crucial boys’ triad. Instead, enter Dulwich College, in South London, which served up three delicious imps in Henry Balding, Finlay A’Court and Ben Miller. Balding, small, with the red freckled look, was the cheeky one, fabulous in upper register (after a fractionally uncertain initial start by all three). A’Court, more respectful and deferential, still looked as if he had apples in his pockets and probably a catapult too, and sang like a star, as befitted one who had sung Britten’s mischievous, apple-nicking Harry in Albert Herring at Toulouse.  

But perhaps the pearl of this trio, who arrived in a plane (small models flitting across the upper curtaining or cyclorama were a scrumptious feature of Mears’s production, capturing in modern (or at least 1930s) terms the flavour and spirit of Schikaneder’s impudent masterpiece to perfection) and were inclined to hilarious mishaps) was the alto, Ben Miller: a 13-year-old former member of the much-praised Bromley Boy Singers in Kent, with real depth in the voice, fabulous in low register, and if a shy actor, still a potentially good one.    

Which just about sums it all up. Nevill Holt’s Magic Flute excelled in every single department. It put not a foot wrong. If it can deliver a chorus like this one, such imagination and consistent ideas, such flair in the young and very young, and such beauty in the female casting to offset the character of the male, there seems very little it cannot go on and achieve. Might Mears and Chalmers bring their Macbeth from Northern Ireland? Now that would be a coup for Nevill Holt. Still fledging, or only just fledged, it’s not yet in a position to risk staging rare operas. But it has the ability to make a hugely good job of the regular repertoire.  

And they don’t look like sitting on their laurels. Ross can look back on season number one with huge satisfaction and pleasure. Though he does not sugar daddy the productions – some five sixths of the income has to be generated by the two immensely capable administrators from ticket sales, sponsorship and arm-twisting – he, and his beautiful manor, are the inspiration and provide the confidence behind the whole outfit. His own top-notch opera company may not be this unstoppable still-young telephone and internet entrepreneur’s only ambition; but on this showing, it’s one he has certainly fulfilled.

Roderic Dunnett 

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