Refreshed and Reinvigorated Die Zauberflöte at Covent Garden

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Royal Opera House, Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23.2.2015 (MB)

Tamino – Toby Spence
Three Ladies – Sinéad Mulhern, Nadezhda Karyazina, Claudia Huckle
Papageno – Markus Werba
Queen of the Night – Anna Siminska
Monostatos – Colin Judson
Pamina – Jania Brugger
Three Boys – Michael Clayton-Jolly, Matthew Price, Alessio D’Andrea
Speaker – Benjamin Bevan
Sarastro – Georg Zeppenfeld
Priests – Harry Nicoll, Donald Maxwell
Papagena – Rhian Lois
Two Armoured Men – Samuel Sakker, James Platt

Director – Sir David McVicar
Designs – John Macfarlane
Lighting – Paule Constable
Movement – Leah Hausman

When, a couple of years ago, I last saw David McVicar’s production of The Magic Flute, I was pleased to note that Leah Hausman’s revival direction had brought new life to a staging which, at its previous revival in 2011, had begun to seem tired. In terms of staging, it seems to have perked up further in 2015. Part of the reason, I suspect, must be McVicar’s having returned to direct the revival himself. This was something I did not pick up on until after the event, but which, in retrospect, certainly told. Not only did the cast members appear perfectly clear what they were and what they should be doing; a considerable amount of movement (typically well planned by Leah Hausman) had been rethought, reinvented. I can be very touchy – many would doubtless say too touchy, but here I stand… – when it comes to Mozart, and regret what seemed to me a shift towards the merely comic. However, if my memory serves me correctly, and this is a production I have watched regularly on DVD too, it was a shift rather than a wrench. Many, in any case, will feel differently, should the widespread enthusiasm for Nicholas Hytner’s old ENO staging, an enthusiasm I never felt in the slightest, be anything to go by. There remains delight to be had in John Macfarlane’s designs; a visual, if less an intellectual, sense of eighteenth-century Enlightenment remains happily present too. At any rate, it is pleasing to see a twelve-year-old production – I shall never forget Sir Colin Davis’s conducting during its initial run – refreshed and reinvigorated.

 Cornelius Meister’s conducting had its moments; comparisons with Davis would be pointless. Meister sometimes seemed hamstrung by the (presumably self-inflicted) size of his orchestra, nowhere more so than in an often scrawny account of the Overture. When will conductors recognise the crucial matter of the size of a house in suggesting the necessary, or at least desirable, number of strings? There was sometimes a tendency to rush, too, an especially noteworthy occasion being the merely glib conclusion to the first act where, Mozart should sound at his most Beethovenian. However, there was orchestral beauty, albeit of a Fricsay-Abbado ‘light’, almost free-floating variety, worlds away from Klemperer, Böhm, or Davis, let alone Furtwängler. Harmony, then, might have been given more of its due. Some of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s woodwind playing was truly ravishing; I recall a particularly fruity bassoon line, but there were many other instances. If there were a few disjunctures between pit and stage, there was little that was grievous, and little, moreover, that seemed unlikely to be rectified in the progress of this run of performances.

 Toby Spence proved an ardent Tamino, a little darker-hued than we often hear, and certainly none the worse for that. This was the first time I had heard his Pamina, Jania Brugger, but I very much hope that it will not be the last. Her performance balanced dignity and beauty of tone in properly Mozartian manner, her second-act aria an object lesson in pathos without exaggeration. ‘Bei Männern’ was an especial delight, given the participation of Markus Werba as Papageno. I do not think I have ever heard a less than excellent performance from him, and this was no exception. His Viennese way with the dialogue came as balm to the ears; but there was sadness too, as there must be beneath any clowning. Rhian Lois made the most of her role as his intended: an impressive Royal Opera debut. Anna Siminska’s Queen of the Night had the occasional slip, but this is a well-nigh impossible role; there was much nevertheless to admire. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Sarastro presented gravitas leavened by humanity, as did Benjamin Bevan’s Speaker. If the Three Ladies were not always ideally blended, the Three Boys proved delightfully aethereal, Mozart’s tricky chromaticism holding no fears for them. Colin Judson offered character that was more than mere caricature with his Monostatos. (Really, though, there should be a better solution to Sarastro’s line concerning the Moor’s blackness than stopping half-way through, pausing, and resuming later on!)

Mark Berry

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