The Lichfield Festival is in full swing – and living just five minutes from the Cathedral, it’s hard not to feel you’re in the middle of something special even when you’re merely walking to the shops! I’ll be producing a full round-up for The Arts Desk tomorrow, but meanwhile, since The Birmingham Post is experiencing difficulties posting my reviews of individual concerts to its website, I’ll be posting them here while the Festival is still under way. Even critics like to feel as if they’re part of something, after all…
(NB: No star ratings here – editors and PRs love ’em but critics hate them, and I’m no exception. If you really do need to attach a score to an artistic performance like it’s a spelling test or something, they can be seen in the print edition of The Birmingham Post, available now).
There’ve been times since 2010 when we’ve despaired of the Lichfield Festival. Now there’s a new artistic director, Sonia Stevenson and, on the basis of this opening concert performance of The Magic Flute, every reason to hope that things are back on course.
The sheer ambition was inspiring, even if the end result had a distinctly improvised, “let’s do the show right here” sort of feeling. There was no orchestra (Anthony Kraus and Ian Ryan played a re-working of Zemlinsky’s piano reduction), no chorus, and the sole gesture towards costume was Papageno’s pair of denim shorts.
But the singing was truly impressive – Kate Valentine as the First Lady was real luxury casting. Anna Dennis stole the show: her nuanced voice and understated intensity made Pamina a tragic figure, never more poignant than in her quartet with the Three Boys, sung with wonderful freshness and ensemble by ex-Cathedral choristers Jemima Richardson-Jones, Amber Jordan and Alice Windsor.
Alexander Sprague (Tamino) made up in tone for what he might have lacked in ardour. Richard Wiegold (Sarastro) had a voice of black velvet and Samantha Hay was a Queen of the Night of laser-like ferocity and focus. Adrian Thompson played Monostatos as a sleazy bank-manager, while as a long-suffering Papageno, you sensed that Jonathan Gunthorpe was fighting the urge to give a bigger, funnier performance than this staging allowed.
That was the single biggest problem: the spoken dialogue had been entirely cut and replaced with a hit-and-miss narration by Janice Galloway, spoken by Guy Henry. The Flute is not a long opera, and without the dialogue that Mozart expected, his characters are only half-complete. So it’s a tribute to the musical quality of this performance that we left with smiles on our faces – and a sense that the Festival’s heart is finally back in the right place.