If you thought the Magic Flute had a weird plot, you should see its daddy...

The Times 31 July 2001

If you thought The Magic Flute had a weird plot, you should see its daddy. The Philosopher’s Stone, which was given its UK-staged premiere by Bampton Classical Opera amid the golden stone of a Cotswold village at the weekend, as a collaboration between the Flute’s librettist Emanuel Schikaneder and a number of drinking chums, including Mozart. It is tempting to hear a special genius in Mozart’s three little duets but, in truth, beyond a certain sophistication of scoring, they do not advertise themselves.

The ‘story’ of The Philosopher’s Stone comes from the same sources as the Flute, concerns a power-struggle between two estranged brothers, who also happen to be demi-gods, and the complicated effect this has on the Arcadian flower-children who live under their influence: in other words, the kind of jolly nonsense familiar from all supernatural fairytales. Jeremy Gray’s uncomplicated staging brought all this bang up to date with, er, a Maharishi-type guru, Star Trek togs and a Delek performing a stately march.

Thomas Guthrie’s proto-Papageno, Lubano, carried the evening, a natural hangdog comic whose marital problems with his determindly coquettish wife (Gillian Keith) glue the show together. Mark Saberton’s Eutifronte (the naughty brother), bad to the bone in biker gear, was excellently hissable. The show lacked the joyous ensemble of last year’s Comedy of Errors, but the principals were all in good form and the hammy chorus didn’t hurt too badly.

The music chugs along with nods to every style of the period – a spot of Sturm und Drang, some rather unfair Queen of the Night-style coloratura for the tenors – with the occasional genuine highlight: Nadine’s caressing minuet, A Woman Who has Felt Love’s Dart; Lubano’s downbeat little song, To Trust a Girl Would Not be Wise, accompanied by neat woodwind; the Mozart duet Now my sweet darling, artlessly affecting, the orchestra batting motifs about like seals juggling beachballs.

A bitty drama comes together musically and dramatically in a few ensemble scenes, and the extended Act I finale is cleverly paced, with the melting moments and sudden cloudings-over of real opera.

Alexander Briger’s Bennelong Ensemble is a huge improvement on last year’s scratch orchestra, with some lovely horn and oboe work.

Bampton is good clean fun, and this is a work which tells us a lot about Mozart and the Flute. We’ll be seeing plenty more of it.

Robert Thicknesse