It's out of this world (preview)

The Independent 27 July 2001

A second Magic Flute? A tenor Queen of the Night? Yet another madcap opera by Emanuel Schikaneder, co-composed by members of the original Magic Flute cast, with a storm, a shipwreck, dwarves, magic birds and astral beings, and Mozart's name writ large upon it?

The Philosopher's Stone (Der Stein der Weisen, or Die Zauberinsel, 1790) is a Singspiel with spoken comic dialogue, jointly attributed to Mozart, Schikaneder, Franz Gerl, Benedikt Schack and Johann Henneberg. The young Sydney-born conductor Alexander Briger will deliver the UK stage premiere this weekend for Bampton Classical Opera in Barry Millington's spirited new translation. It was first heard in this country in a concert performance at last summer's Hampstead and Highgate Festival.

The Stone's links with The Magic Flute (staged in 1791) were numerous. Both operas draw on Wieland's collection of folk tales. Both involved higher and lower-order comic pairs, and confrontational supra-beings. And they starred the same team, with Schikaneder (Papageno) as the comic Lubano; Schack (Tamino) as the benevolent god Astromonte; Gerl (Sarastro) as the malicious Eutifronte; Gerl's wife (Papagena) singing Lubanara; and the original Pamina (Anna Gottlieb) as the heroine, Nadine.

It was the Iowa-based scholar David Buch who drew attention to three Mozart attributions on a Hamburg manuscript. They include a cat duet ("Nun, liebes Weibchen") already known from a Paris source, in which Lubanara is metamorphosed by the evil Eutifronte (to prevent her letting the cat out of the bag): shades of the "gagged" Papageno.

"People tend to think of The Magic Flute as a bizarre one-off piece," explains the director, Jeremy Gray, who with his wife is the moving force behind Bampton's outdoor revivals of rare repertoire ranging from Paisiello (Nina) and Storace (Gli equivoci) to Gazzaniga (a rival Don Giovanni). "In fact, it's possible to trace a whole genre in the popular productions staged by Schikaneder around that time.

"On The Philosopher's Stone there are only three fairly minor mentions of Mozart. If it had been an attempt at forgery, his name would have cropped up more frequently. The copyist has been linked with the Theater auf der Wieden outside Vienna where it was produced; so the attributions are likely to be authentic.

"It's quite a problematic opera to put on: like The Magic Flute, it's preposterous, it's bitty. It has serious characters, noble music and noble themes, but also slapstick humour and fantastic effects: gods who come down from heaven in chariots, scenes under the earth, singing birds, all difficult to pull off [despite Bampton's tangibly magical setting, a rook-filled deanery garden in Oxfordshire]. We're treating it to a great extent as science fiction, so that Astromonte becomes a character from space, and the second act is set on a comet," says Gray.

"Often it's impossible to say exactly who did what," explains the ebullient Briger, who has worked with his fellow Australian Sir Charles Mackerras on several Mozart productions, directs the Bennelong Ensemble and is just back from overseeing Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen at Aix-en-Provence. "Some argue that the part of the Act II finale attributed to Mozart isn't by him at all. Mozart always wrote in a very specific way, with oboes at the top, strings and flute underneath, and often the brass on a separate piece of paper.

"The Genie's command and 'Du schwarzer Teufel' are supposedly by Mozart; neither is overly impressive. But then Lubano launches into 'The wife is a cat' and suddenly he adds octave oboes, then an oboe and horn, then these amazing crescendos in consecutive fifths with the singer – and it's just the greatest orchestration: there's no way it could be by anyone but Mozart. It's too extreme.

"The cat duet (listed in Kochel's catalogue, K625/592A) really is Mozart, it's beautifully orchestrated – the way he uses the wind as Lubanara starts miaowing, or the open strings and horns near the end, as everything starts to double up. My theory is, whenever a cat's mentioned in the opera Mozart, being the wit that he was, thought 'Ah, that looks fun, but the orchestration's not good, I'll make it really interesting.'"

Gray adds: "It's not as if Mozart played around with the whole opera, but there are just moments where his voice comes through. In a couple of duets for Lubano and Lubanara (dead ringers for Papageno and Papagena) there's a child-like fun which makes for delightful theatre. And in Act I, four maidens vie, just like the three women at the beginning of The Magic Flute. Both overtures are stronger than the conventional 18th-century overture, and the choruses are extensive and often very fine."

Briger says: "The second chorus during Astromonte's aria is out of this world; one almost feels that's by Mozart. Nadir's part is incredibly demanding – I mean, what tenor encompasses a coloratura top D? His aria has a beautiful introduction with strings, and then trumpets and tymps seem to come out of nowhere. And the end of Act II sounds almost Wagnerian!

"Astromonte himself sounds so like the Queen of the Night that many think his role was intended for Mozart's sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who was on maternity leave. The beginning is typical Mozart, paired clarinets against flutes and bassoons. It's as if Mozart was trying it out – we know he liked to play around with Schack's music, they were close friends – and said 'Hey, that doesn't look very good, why don't you put this in?' and it's literally perfect for four bars."

Gray says: "There's an interesting twist when Astromonte makes off with Nadine: everyone is horrified, and the demon manipulates things to imply that Astromonte is not as benign as people believed. Finally he is proved to be good, and the father of Nadir. He pardons his brother and all ends predictably and happily.

"Despite varying quality and colour I do think it's remarkable the way the opera actually holds together. There's a real sense of shape and many genuine delights. It would be fascinating to know how the whole thing was managed; the master figure must have been Schikaneder, who was obviously trying to lure an audience and create a big financial success – as indeed it was." Gray, a modern-day Schikaneder who runs Bampton on a shoestring, deserves a similar satisfaction himself.

Roderic Dunnett