A Fitting Operatic Memorial to Sir Colin Davis

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Julia Jones (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 16.4.2013 (MB)

Tamino – Charles Castronovo
Pamina – Ekaterina Siurina
Papageno – Christopher Maltman
Papagena – Susana Gaspar
Queen of the Night – Albina Shagumuratova
Monostatos – Peter Hoare
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
First Lady – Anita Watson
Second Lady – Hanna Hipp
Third Lady – Gaynor Keeble
Speaker – Sebastian Holecek
First Priest – Harry Nicoll
Second Priest – Donald Maxwell
First Armoured Man – David Butt Philip
Second Armoured Man – Jihonn Kim
First Boy – Archie Buchanan
Second Boy – Luciano Cusack
Third Boy – Filippo Turkheimer

Sir David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

A shadow hung over this performance of The Magic Flute, the shadow being that of the late Sir Colin Davis. Yet at the same time, as Sir Antonio Pappano reminded us in a touching introductory speech, this was an especially fitting memorial, for if one wanted a sense of Sir Colin as a person, this was perhaps the work to which one should listen. The last time around, in 2011, had not necessarily shown Davis to his greatest advantage, though a variable cast shouldered much of the responsibility. But no one who heard Sir Colin in 2006, whether in the theatre or on the much-loved DVD of this production, is likely to forget so magical an experience.

It would have been an invidious situation for any conductor. With the best will in the world, one could not claim that Julia Jones proved a match for our pre-eminent Mozartian. Nevertheless, tempi were generally well-chosen, if occasionally a touch on the fast side. (Such things are relative; the provisional wing of the ‘authenticke’ movement would probably have had her knee-capped for Klemperer-like backsliding.) There was fluency, but little in the way of Davis’s twinkle-in-the-eye magic. Though the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, a few slips notwithstanding, played admirably on the whole, boasting a fullness tone that might almost have been intended for Sir Colin himself, the brass, trumpets especially, presented a significant fly in the ointment. Insensitive, undifferentiated rasping and blaring worthy of the likes of René Jacobs or Roger Norrington sounded entirely out of place in a generally cultivated performance. Jones should certainly have had them blend better. Rather to my surprise, the chorus, normally so dependable for its excellence, appeared to be having some of an off-day too, oscillating a little too much between shouting and the slightly lacklustre.

Charles Castronovo’s Tamino marked a significant improvement upon his recent Ferrando (under Davis). His style was more Mozartian, his phrasing mellifluously handled, without detriment to his welcome vocal heft. If his German fell somewhat short of perfect, that sadly was a failing common to most of the cast, with the exception of Christopher Maltman’s winning Papageno, ever alert to pathos as to humour, and to the pathos within the humour. Sir Colin would surely have applauded. Ekaterina Siurina made a lovely Pamina, clean toned and touching. Though Albina Shagimuratova’s first aria as the Queen of the Night was a little uncertain, noticeably slowing down towards the end, there was still a great deal to admire; her coloratura in the second aria came closer to what Mozart wrote than one generally hears. It was certainly a pleasure to hear a fuller-toned voice in the part. Brindley Sherratt’s Sarastro did the job without offering anything especially memorable; his well-judged low notes were perhaps an exception. Peter Hoare made an excellent Monostatos, more of a character, less of a mere caricature, than we have come to expect. An especially strong impression was made by the Three Ladies, more womanly than one often hears, and all the better for it. If only, here as elsewhere, more work had been done on the German, and not only in the dialogue, whose difficult racism – at least to our ears – had been excised, if not necessarily with sufficient care for continuity.

Sir David McVicar’s production had looked rather tired in 2011. I am pleased to report that it seemed to have gained something of a new lease of life under Leah Hausman. The sense of interplay between the timeless and the eighteenth century remains impressive, doing much to impart that sense of wonder lacking on this occasion from the orchestral contribution. The final scene still seems a miscalculation, an almost blinding light rolled on like a huge cheese; there is more to the Enlightenment, let alone to the stranger reaches of Rosicrucianism, than that. Revival of this production, however, remained a happy coincidence in the light of Sir Colin’s passing.

Mark Berry