MUCIS / Cheap tricks on the road to High Wycombe

Click to follow
IN OCTOBER 1791 Mozart took his mother-in-law to The Magic Flute but made her do her homework first. She had to study the libretto, even though she could have been expected to follow the text in performance (it was in her native German). Despite the preparation, Mozart expressed the fear that she would see the opera but not hear it - which suggests that he considered the Flute more substantial than its packaging as suburban pantomime suggests. And he was not alone. Goethe, to select one of Mozart's more literate contemporaries, compared the Flute with his own Faust as a work of peculiarly wide address, ranging from knockabout comedy to romantic idealism.

So it was interesting to read the introduction to the Travelling Opera production which has been playing at the Barbican and be told - by the director Peter Knapp - that the Flute is really nothing more than an 'unpretentious entertainment': a piece of fun that the world has taken too seriously. And having read this statement, it was odd to find that Mr Knapp's staging was no fun at all. In fact, it was sober, flat and dull. This is a pity, because Travelling Opera is a worthy venture that takes competent small-scale productions to venues off the normal opera circuits and manages to field a small orchestra (most comparable outfits only offer a piano) without an Arts Council grant. Maybe it looks better in the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, or the Swan, High Wycombe, than on the broad, open stage of the Barbican concert hall. There, its skeletal set of tubular geometrical shapes assumed the spectral emptiness of an unfashionable keep-fit parlour.

Travelling Opera, of course, works on a shoestring budget. You can tell that from the way its eponynous magic flute is an orchestral spare with crepe paper stuffed in both ends, and by the fact that any soloist not, for the moment, engaged as such is dragooned into the chorus. Both the Three Boys and Three Ladies turn up among the temple brethren - a doubling up which is unexceptionable and sometimes even productive. The most memorable moment here was when, before our eyes, the Third Boy metamorphosed into Papagena: something I had never contemplated in a lifetime's listening to the score.

But poverty is not in itself a virtue. It's a challenge, to which the best small companies respond with ingenuity; and Travelling Opera isn't ingenious enough to be poor with style. But it does have a commendable orchestra and some very acceptable, if under-directed, singers. In his hunting pink and with his Oxbridge choral manner, Timothy Robinson's Tamino looks and sounds decidedly English: reticent, but clean and intelligent. Nicole Tibbels' Queen of the Night is technically impressive. And although Ian Watson conducts the opening measures of the overture like Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler - with heartfelt sloth - he makes a fine job of what follows. I hope it does work better in High Wycombe.

The Barbican has been housing opera, as the Festival Hall has been housing ballet, because London's concert life closes down at New Year. But there was one significant recital this week, given by the soprano Joan Rodgers and the pianist Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall. An attractive all-German programme (apart from some token Tchaikovsky in the encores: Ms Rodgers has a new and very good Tchaikovsky disc out on Hyperion), it was delivered with sensitivity, musicianship, and an engaging personality that eclipsed any question

of whether the readings were stylistically echt Deutsch. Though producing a luscious texture, Rodgers' is essentially a light, soubrettish voice that doesn't quite have the depth of tone ideal in Berg's Seven Early Songs. 'Die Nachtigall' sounded especially thin. And Schoenberg's Cabaret Songs were tame by comparison with the magisterial chic that Jessye Norman gave them in her grand Festival Hall recital last autumn. But all the music on the bill (including Strauss's 'Zueignun' and a group of Wolf's Moricke Lieder) was the music of young composers in their 20s, and Joan Rodgers made it sound deliciously youthful, with a tenderness that positively gleamed through the familiar lieder sentiments of unrequited love. A charming presentation, beautifully (though not infallibly) accompanied by Mr Vignoles.

Magic Flute tours Feb-April, to Windsor, Stratford, Swansea, Stevenage, Ipswich, York, Sheffield, Richmond, Wolverhampton, High Wycombe & Blandford Forum. Details: 0858 434677.