...a vivacious performance

Opera, November 2001

The Philosopher 's Stone isn't actually by Mozart: much of it is the work of his young colleague Johann Baptist Henneberg, aged 2I, who rehearsed Die Zauberflöte and took over the conducting from Mozart after the first two performances. But it bears Mozart's imprimatur: at least three passages are known to be by him; and (to judge by some natty touches) he may well have tinkered with the orchestration elsewhere. Yet this Wieland-based tale has enough of the Flute - magic creatures, a philosopher-king, a pair of higher and lower order lovers, a gagged 'cat' duet, concealed paternity and a botched murder plot - to reveal something of the quality of this spirited collaborative genre which Schikaneder had just begun galvanizing at the Theater auf der Wieden.

It was premièred on 11 September 1790, and key members of the Zauberflöte cast composed bits and/or sang in it. It was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for Mozart's masterpiece the following year. The first recent stage production was in Augsburg; its first UK (concert) performance was at last year's Hampstead and Highgate Festival.

Jeremy Gray's outdoor productions for Bampton Classical Opera grow sharper year by year. Here, with co-director Thomas Guthrie, who also sang a mellifluous Lubano (the baritone Papageno role), plus a forceful chorus, a new young orchestra (the capable British-Australian Bennelong Ensemble) plus lively props and space-age stage effects, Gray served up a vivacious performance. Two rising young tenors, Mark Wilde and Benjamin Hulett, made a good stab at the demanding coloratura roles of Nadir and Astromonte. As the villainous brother, Eutifronte, Mark Saberton (another strong baritone) had the right pantomimic frightfulness. Second-half lighting lent additional colour, and the Australian-born conductor, Alexander Briger, inspired some pithy period-manner playing. Once again Bampton has shown how imaginative repertoire can be married with audience-friendliness and fun. Barry Millington's entertaining translation served the piece well.

Roderic Dunnett