Effect Without Cause in ENO’s Zauberflöte

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick) and Orchestra of the English National Opera, Gergely Madras (conductor), The Coliseum, London, 7.11.2013 (MB)

(sung in English, as The Magic Flute)


Tamino: Ben Johnson
First Lady – Eleanor Dennis
Second Lady – Clare Presland
Third Lady – Rosie Aldridge
Papageno – Roland Wood
Queen of the Night – Cornelia Götz
Monostatos – Brian Galliford
Pamina – Devon Guthrie
Three Boys – AlessioD’Andrea, Finlay A’Court, Alex Karlsson
Speaker – Steven Page
Sarastro – James Creswell
First Priest, First Armoured Man – Anthony Gregory
Second Priest, Second Armoured Man – Robert Winslade Anderson
Papagena – Mary Bevan


Simon McBurney (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Josie Daxter (movement)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Gareth Fry (sound designs)


I seem to be in a minority in not remotely regretting the passing of Nicholas Hytner’s ENO production of The Magic Flute. Though others loved it, when first, rather late in the day, I saw it, I found it ‘more West End than Masonic’, and was still less thrilled upon a second viewing. For ENO, in a co-production with the Dutch Opera, the International Festival of Lyric Art, Aix-en-Provence, and in collaboration with Complicité, to present something new from Simon McBurney was therefore most welcome. At first, things seemed quite promising. The emphasis upon theatricality and showing its workings is certainly not out of place in such a work, even if the use of video – for instance, in writing ‘The Magic Flute’ on a screen during the Overture – often seems unnecessary. The presence on either side of the stage of sound booths, in which one witnesses the making – or in some cases, I think, not actually the making – of various sound ‘effects’, some more welcome than others, offers the prospect of an interrogation of Complicité’s brand of theatricality. Unfortunately, little more issues from such intriguing possibilities. We seem more often than not to be in the world of Wagner’s celebrated accusation against Meyerbeer: effect without cause. What initially, and indeed for a good part of the first act, seems refreshing (for instance the presence of actors with paper birds sometimes to surround Papageno)  soon palls.

More fundamentally, despite the undoubted technical ingenuity on display, theatricality seems to serve as a substitute for, rather than a means to express, any idea of what the work might actually be about, or might be held to be about. With such a host of possibilities, which might be presented, questioned, even rejected, not even to ask the question in the first place leaves behind a sense of lack of fulfilment, rather as if one had eaten an initially striking yet ultimately un-nutritious meal.  I am not entirely convinced that Furtwängler was right to argue against viewing the work as a brother to Parsifal, although I can understand why he did; it is a point of view worth taking seriously in any case. However, I would rather see a production and performance that took The Magic Flute too seriously, should that even be possible, than one that did not take it seriously enough. That need not, should not, preclude magic, humour, wonder; however, as the Leipzig Gewandhaushas has reminded us since 1781,‘Res severa verum gaudium’. Instead we have yet again the tedious and at the very least borderline offensive depiction of a ‘Northern’ accent for Papageno as intrinsically amusing.

Gergely Madras, making his operatic debut, often took the music too fast, yet at least he did not fall into many ‘authenticke’ traps, bar that annoying, increasingly prevalent, trait of double-dotting in the Overture. The effect of excessive speed tended to be a little inconsequential rather than hard-driven, such as we have had to endure from ENO’s Music Director in his ill-advised forays into Classical repertoire.There were also peculiar instances of scaling back the number of strings – already meagre, with nine first violins down to just two double basses. Perhaps most serious of all, gravity was lacking; surely the practice of any number of great conductors, such as Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, and Colin Davis, ought to have been suggestive here. That said, there was a sense, when it was not rushed, of delight in the music. Perhaps a greater sense of what is at stake will come with greater experience.

Ben Johnson made a very good impression as Tamino: his acting committed and his singing generally stylish. As his beloved, Devon Guthrie was competent, but little more than that. Alas, Cornelia Götz, as her mother, was rather less than that, boasting neither ferocity nor sparkle. (Quite why she was in a wheelchair, I have no idea.) James Creswell lacked sonorous dignity as Sarastro, though he was certainly not helped by the staging. Brian Galliford’s Monostatos was more a theatrical than a musical assumption, but on those terms made its mark. (I assume, given McBurney’s remarks concerning The Tempest, that the strange visual portrayal must have been intended as a Caliban equivalent. It was not perhaps, a bad idea to replace the problematical Moorish associations with Shakespeare’s ‘savage and deformed slave’, though that again is hardly without its problems for a modern audience; yet again, it was difficult to discern any fundamental dramatic point being made.) Roland Wood’s Papageno was sadly lacking in charm, though again that may have been partly to be ascribed to the production; for some unfathomable reason, his appearance bore at least a hint of the post-Jimmy Savile. The Three Ladies were a good bunch, both musically and theatrically. It was left to Mary Bevan to offer with her veritably sparkling Papagena, however briefly, the only real vocal complement to Johnson.

The increasingly common usage, ‘Three Spirits’, was used for what used to be the standard English, ‘Three Boys’: odd, given that girls’ voices were used. In any case, the boys, despite their weird portrayal as skeletal old men – again, for no reason I could discern – sang well. More seriously, the programme described the Two Armoured Men as ‘Armed Men’: a common mistake, though the German is perfectly clear, and the meaning is quite different. A strange piece on ‘Mozart and Maths’ by Marcus du Sautoy seemingly labours under the delusion that Mozart wrote his own libretti. (Yes, of course he would suggest sometimes considerable revisions, but that is another matter.) On the positive side, there is much to provoke one to thought, far more than in the production, in a splendid short essay by Anna Picard on the role of women.

Mark Berry            

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