Mozart: The Magic Flute ****
English National Opera, 7th November 2013
For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite, created at Dutch National Opera, co-producers, where it received its première last year. Stagecraft and the art of illusion are very much in focus in a contemporary telling of Mozart’s fairy tale pantomime which frequently delights.
This is the sort of show you need to see more than once, as your eyes (and ears) are constantly diverted in so many directions at the same time. There is magic aplenty in the staging but McBurney and his team don’t appear to be hiding anything up their collective sleeves. Set designer Michael Levine dresses an empty stage, bar a giant platform winched to every angle, with a series of images (visual and aural) conjured from either side of the raised orchestra pit. My eyes were frequently drawn to the puppeteer forming images which were projected onto the rear screen of the set or to the Foley artist creating sound effects in her box on the opposite side. It led to a wonderful mixture of high- and low-tech stagecraft, from childish chalkboard mountains to slick video projections of the boa constrictor pursuing Tamino in the opening scene. Shadow puppetry and a Temple of Reason formed from a bookshelf made their mark, especially when the Speaker turns the pages of a book and illustrations of animals spring to animated life.
Actors fluttering leaves of sheet music created Papageno’s birds, while Pamina’s portrait was projected onto them. The trials by fire and water were dazzling, thanks to the mix of Finn Ross’ video designs and simple fly-wire techniques to depict a submerged Pamina and Tamino. The sound designs by Gareth Fry were similarly enchanting, nowhere more so than in the preamble to “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” where Papageno assembles his ‘magic bells’ from wine bottles, replicated by both the Foley artist and the celesta player in the pit.
McBurney’s production shares with Hytner’s the easy transition from the pantomimic to the philosophical. While he illustrates the story in frequently exquisite pictures of childlike wonder, the interpretation of this strange tale is largely left to the minds of the audience. A few notable exceptions are the three boys as wizened old men – the wisdom of youth while some of their elders have none – and the reconciliation offered by Sarastro to the Queen of the Night. Redemption plus a message of Wisdom and Love isn’t a bad place to end the evening. Stephen Jeffreys’ English translation is effective enough, although surtitles were still needed in the musical numbers and the Coliseum’s acoustic swallowed up some of the intervening dialogue.
High art, low humour. High-tech, simple stagecraft. This glorious mix would have delighted Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s friend and impresario and the first Papageno. Initially, I was concerned that Roland Wood’s Lancastrian scruff-bag of a birdcatcher was played too darkly. There was little joy in his interplay with his paper birds and he seemed hampered by having to lug around a stepladder for most of Act I. The humour (and ‘by-eck-as-like’ accent) broadened in Act II, however, and much fun was had with his family of operatic wine bottles – Châteauneuf du (René) Pape indeed – taking the piss out of Gheorghiu and Alagna (‘Auntie Ange’ and ‘Uncle Roberto’) before pissing in another to fine-tune his magic bells. Wood’s baritone warmed up nicely for this number (with #desperate scrawled in chalk) and he evinced a certain degree of pathos in his aborted suicide scene. Is this a Papageno to love, though? I recall Roderick Williams’ last-ditch appeal to the audience garnering at least one marriage proposal. This Papageno wasn’t so endearing, although the final duet with Mary Bevan’s sassy Papagena brought grins to many faces as they escaped through the stalls to pastures new.
Our travellers towards the realms of Enlightenment, Tamino and Pamina, were both well-presented but not without a few vocal difficulties. Ben Johnson, the bookish Alfredo in Peter Konwitschny’s controversial, but riveting La traviata, has a lovely open tone, well suited to Tamino but he forces it rather too hard in his portrait aria, his tenor occasionally sounding tired. Devon Guthrie, his feisty Pamina, has a lovely lower register, if a little thin up top. She suffered from slow tempi in her aria “Ach, ich fühl’s”, resulting in a lack of fluidity in her ornamentation. Guthrie was at her best confronting Sarastro or Brian Galliford’s slippery, hirsute Monostatos.
The opposing forces of Darkness and Light, Cornelia Götz’s Queen of the Night and James Cresswell’s Sarastro, gave the evening’s better vocal performances. Presenting the Queen as a crippled old woman bent on revenge works well and Götz rose to the challenge of the fearsome coloratura excellently, even if the colouring of those infamous top Fs in “Der Hölle Rache” emerge in a pale monochrome compared with the rest of her range. Cresswell’s Sarastro was vocally strong, especially so in firmly pitched low notes, and he manages long phrases gloriously, but I didn’t warm to the chilly ‘evangelist addressing conference’ approach taken with the character. Less Enlightenment, more sinister cult, but that’s Freemasonry for you.
The Queen of the Night’s combats-clad Three Ladies (Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldridge) made quick work of the snake, blending well vocally and competing for Tamino’s attention with bold physical humour. Steven Page offered firm-voiced authority as the Speaker, while the two Armoured Men (Anthony Gregory and Robert Winslade Anderson) sang strongly. The Three Boys (Alessio D’Andrea, Finlay A’Court and Alex Karlsson), here described as Three Spirits, took their moments well, projecting voices and establishing their ‘little old men’ characters humorously.
Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras, making his ENO debut, led a strong account of Mozart’s score. There were historically-informed touches such as hard timpani sticks and some vibrato-less string playing, but his speeds were often broad, giving time for the music to breathe. The Orchestra of ENO was integral to the action, flautist Katie Bedford brought onto the stage to play for Tamino and much by-play between Papageno and the sadly uncredited celesta player. The Overture began with house lights up, as they were at the end, when the entire orchestra rose to its feet for the final bars, they and us drawn in to the new beginning offered to Tamino and Pamina. The ENO Chorus was in rousing form for the two finales and the extended curtain calls revealed what fun the performers all seem to have enjoyed putting this production together. With its sense of child-like wonder and balance between art and illusion, it looks like it could be another keeper.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.