ENO’s Much Revived Magic Flute Continues to Delight

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Nicholas Collon (conductor), Coliseum, London, 13.9.2012. (JPr)

The Magic Flute Act II Duncan Rock (Papageno) Rhian Lois(Papagena)c ENO  Photo Alastair Muir

First staged in 1988 Nicholas Hytner’s ‘iconic production’ has been in the repertory for 25 years and is receiving its fourteenth revival. Apparently all its recent appearances have been accompanied by the ‘final performances’ tag but back it is again – thankfully because I certainly have not reported on it before and do not believe I have ever seen it. My history with The Magic Flute and the ENO goes back nearly 40 years, more significantly I first saw it at Covent Garden in 1980 with a stellar cast that included Stuart Burrows, Thomas Allen, Donald McIntyre and Kiri Te Kanawa. More interestingly, Sarastro was sung that night by Robert Lloyd – and for English National Opera the same singer, now 72, reprised the role.

According to an interesting essay in the printed programme by Peter Branscombe there is ‘continuing debate about the authorship of the libretto’. I have always been in the Schikaneder camp but am open to persuasion. I understood Mozart’s 1791 Singspiel in two acts was the culmination of the composer’s increasing involvement with Emanuel Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe which since 1789 had been the resident company at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden. Mozart was a close friend of one of the singer-composers in the troupe, Benedikt Schack (the first Tamino), and had contributed to their compositions, which were often collaboratively written. A year earlier in 1790 Mozart participated in Schikaneder’s opera Der Stein der Weisen (‘The Philosopher’s Stone’), including the duet (‘Nun liebes Weibchen’ K592a) and perhaps other passages. Like The Magic Flute, Der Stein der Weisen was a fairy-tale opera and a sort of precursor, since it employed much the same cast in similar roles.

The Magic Flute is noted for its prominent Masonic elements (though the ENO programme downplays this); both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera depicts the triumph of reason over despotism, is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and can be regarded as an allegory propounding enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night (or as here, ‘Queen of Night’) is the dangerous form of obscurantism, whilst her antagonist Sarastro is the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight.

The libretto also contains a racial stereotype in the form of Monostatos (who makes unpleasant advances to Pamina mainly because he is a Moor i.e. black) and much – initial – misogyny (all women are subservient to men) that is very jarring to modern sensibilities. My opinion remains that these are historical pieces and are what they are. We do not alter other works of art such as paintings and some literature if they contain something that now offends us, so why do this to opera? Just because we hide things away by expunging all references to Monostatos’s colour from the work it is still remains an intrinsic part of it? If we are so sensitive then it should not be performed in the first place. In David McVicar’s production for Royal Opera the character is some periwigged powdered fop; Hytner has him as a lecherous cross between Captain Hook and Barry Humphries. Both of these are light-years from Mozart’s intentions – or what he wishes us to become enlightened about. Lines such as ‘He’s more than a prince, he’s a man!’ and all the other anti-women rhetoric remains untouched. Then again at the end of the opera Pamina does seem to be welcomed into the priesthood – so all’s well that ends well.

Mentioning Hook, the oft-quoted source for The Magic Flute is Christoph Martin Wieland’s late-eighteenth century anthology of fairy-stories, Dschinnistan. As Lesley Sharpe writes in her essay ‘The quest for wisdom, the ideal union of prince and princess, the journey from darkness to light, the guidance of a wise mentor – all of these are timeless ingredients of myth and fairy-tale, as familiar to modern audiences as they were to those of Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s day.’ If you throw in a wicked queen then you have the ingredients of a traditional British Christmas pantomime and this is what came over most strongly in this umpteenth revival of Hytner’s The Magic Flute. Since we were shown some cute bears all that was really missing as the evening went on were shouts of ‘She’s behind you’, ‘Oh yes, it is! Oh no, it isn’t!’ and the concluding song sheet!

I was berated by someone connected with ENO at the start of last season when I did not seem to praise the opening production The Elixir of Love as much as others, so I must write that I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and thought the evening was very well-prepared and worthy of the company’s great traditions. To add to the overall pantomime feel of the staging (revived here by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas) there was very little scenery; there are impressions in Bob Crowley’s designs of a rocky chasm and the moon from time to time but almost ever-present is the idea of an Egyptian temple with its occasional appropriate statuary. Costumes are a mix of eighteenth-century ceremonial formality and the fantastical. I know The Magic Flute should be more profound and thought-provoking than this but much fun was had by all.

Making his ENO debut was the young Nicholas Collon who looks and conducts on the podium like Simon Rattle of decades ago. The two-an-a-half hours fled by and there never seemed a dull moment as it was an unpretentious, flexible, quick and light-textured account totally in keeping with what was happening on stage. The ever-reliable ENO Orchestra played typically well for him. Generally the singing and acting was of an impressively high standard and there was a very pleasing ensemble feel to everything we heard and saw. I’d prefer to leave Duncan Rock’s world-class Papageno till last but because of an issue it raised I cannot. I ‘grew up’ with seeing Thomas Allen, Hermann Prey, Jonathan Summers, Benjamin Luxon and Alan Opie, amongst others, in this role, so believe me when I say how good this ENO Harewood Artist is. His well-sung Papageno was full of rugged charm and charisma. As suggested, part of this production’s appeal is to downplay some of the story’s more serious issues and play up the comedy. Part of this is by allowing some of the characters to use broad accents during some of the over-long dialogue. For instance, Duncan Rock was a broad Aussie; one of his doves was named ‘Kylie’, when Pamina first appears to him he call her an ‘old sheila’ as she is a fag-smoking über-Welsh charlady. Unfortunately what happens is that there is the usual jarring disparity between how they say what they say and their wonderfully rich well-schooled singing voices. Incidentally one of the funniest moments of the evening came towards the end as Papageno appeals for someone to love him and prevent him hanging himself and there was an enthusiastic ‘Ok!’ from near the front of the stalls that nearly stopped the show!

Elena Xanthoudakis was an endearing Pamina with a sweet-toned, vibrant voice, very much a modern young princess. Shawn Mathey’s stolid Tamino was in no way a typical storybook prince but like many I have seen sing this role before him – Stuart Burrows included – cut a rather unromantic figure but was totally believable as someone on a quest for love and enlightenment. Though phrasing sensitively he often sang sturdily rather than beautifully. After a slightly nervous start throwing out her high Fs in the Queen of Night’s second aria was easy for the coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek, another ENO debutant. The veteran Robert Lloyd had the dependable bass notes many a younger singer would long for and while his singing looked a little effortful at times he brought dignity and gravitas to his authoritative Sarastro. I’m not certain Adrian Thompson now has the energy for Monostatos but he was suitably repugnant. Rhian Lois was a charming Papagena. Final praise to the entertaining trio of Ladies (Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen) and the ‘Three Spirits’, angelic-voiced and well-schooled, Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh.

In the final scene when I hear the First Armed Man (here Nathan Vale) I remember the many performances of Die Zauberflöte I saw when Alberto Remedios was luxuriously cast in this small role and in typical fashion out-sang all those around him. Sadly in this country he was often covering Stuart Burrows’s Tamino and this – as well as – his Peter Grimes (where he is often covered Jon Vickers) were two roles this legendary Siegfried should have sung more times but did not.

But I digress. This was a wonderful evening where the forces of light entertainingly eliminated the darkest of feelings and I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Nicholas Hytner’s The Magic Flute returned for even a further final ‘last hurrah’.

Jim Pritchard

The Magic Flute is in repertory at the London Coliseum until 18th October – for further details please see http://www.eno.org/home.php.