Surreal Magic Flute Has Its Rewards and Limitations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, The Magic Flute:(Revival Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/ Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 13.2.2015 (GPu)

Tamino: Allan Clayton
Pamina: Sophie Bevan
Papageno: Jacques Imbrailo
The Queen of Night: Samantha Hay
Papagena: Claire Hampton
First Lady: Camilla Roberts
Second Lady: Máire Flavin
Third Lady: Emma Carrington
Monostatos: Howard Kirk
First Boy: Rachel Mills
Second Boy: Katrina Nimmo
Third Boy: Jenny Bianco
Speaker: Ashley Holland
Sarastro: Scott Wilde
A Priest: Simon Crosby-Buttle
First Armed Man: Philip Lloyd Holtham
Second Armed Man: Aidan Smith

Original Director: Dominic Cooke
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Set Designer: Julian Crouch
Costume Designer: Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin


The problem for the modern viewer/listener in coming to an understanding of The Magic Flute (and therefore the difficulty of finding a viable idiom in production) does not lie so much with the masonic symbolism which permeates so much of the work, since so much of that – like the importance of ‘triplets’ of various kinds, the role of the quest and the trial by fire and water – is really only a specific example (which may be unfamiliar to us) of something more general, even universal, like the fairy tale and the romance (which is altogether less alien to most of us). The overriding difficulty, it seems to me is that the work is so thoroughly grounded in the conventions and traditions of a particular form of popular entertainment of which we have no modern equivalent. The importance of the tradition within which Mozart was working, and what he did with it, in this, his first (and last) popular – as opposed to courtly – opera, is well stated by David Cairns (Mozart and his Operas, 2006): “Popular theatre, with its mixture of magic, streetwise humour, mystery, farce, spectacle and didactic sentiment, was an enduring and quintessential part of the culture of Vienna, and Mozart as a thoroughgoing Viennese, embraced it wholeheartedly. The Magic Flute was a natural consequence of the interest he took in it. He raised it to a different plane, no doubt, but that was what he usually did [. . .] Here was a chance to do what he had long desired, to create a specifically German opera, a new genre, different in spirit and structure from his Italian comedies, mixing playfulness and solemnity, the vernacular and the lofty”. We have no form of popular theatre in which it is possible to image such a reconciliation of opposites in the simultaneous presence of such absolute unity and rich heterogeneity (I wonder whether there wasn’t a period in the history of the music hall that this might not have been possible?).

Dominic Cooke’s solution, in this revived production (which made its first appearance at the hands of WNO in May of 2005) is to go for an idiom one might loosely describe as ‘influenced by surrealism in general, and Magritte in particular, with further clear visual allusions to Max Ernst and Salvador Dali too. Surrealism certainly accommodates heterogeneity – indeed it might be said to be founded on such a principle –  but ‘absolute unity’ is more difficult to achieve, especially when such a visual language is applied to a pre-existing work. The best surrealist works bear the implicit signature of an individual mind; here Dominic Cooke’s take on the language of surrealism had to cope with the literary concept of Emanuel Schikaneder and the music of Mozart. In any case Cooke allows himself some almost allegorical clarity quite alien to the methods of surrealism – as in the orange clothes and hats – emblematic of the sun and (en)light(enment) – worn by the followers of Sarastro.

 The result, seen as a whole, is rather inconsistent and it is sometimes hard not to think of unintended irrelevancies triggered by the visual language.  All those orange hats make one think of the orange order, surely not the best of analogies for an order such as Sorastro’s, dedicated to the promulgation of “wisdom, beauty and strength”. And what is ‘meant’ (if anything) in the replacement of the opening scene’s dragon by a giant lobster (or more precisely by the claws of what we presume to be a giant lobster, since they’re all that we actually see. Insofar as The Magic Flute is an extraordinary fusion of diverse elements and traditions, the language of surrealism has some considerable aptness; but insofar as it is a profound parable of the soul’s purification on the path to enlightenment and the associated regeneration of society, the surrealistic mode is inappropriate and ill-suited.

 Musically, there were fewer reservations to be made. This was, generally speaking, a strong cast and the work of chorus and orchestra was exemplary. Jacques Imbrailo’s Papageno was well sung and his heavy rural South African accent worked well in the spoken dialogue. This Papageno’s (limited) common-sense and his inability to transcend his simple appetites, made him an excellent foil for the idealizing (and idealized) Tamino of Allan Clayton, dignified and brave, as effective in his spoken dialogue as in his lyrical singing, though just occasionally one wished for a bit more weight in the voice. Fittingly (in a work which altogether transcends the misogyny of which it has sometimes been accused), the most memorable single performance was that of Sophie Bevan as Pamina, surely the most interesting character in the work, the character who has to grow most and make the most difficult decisions. Bevan’s emotionally expressive singing and her grasp of Pamina’s psychological and moral development went side-by-side in a fine and thoroughly plausible interpretation of the character. Samantha Hay had the necessary high notes as Queen of the Night, but her coloratura arias never quite took flight and she didn’t (most singers don’t!) really  make the character live plausibly. As Sarastro, Scott Wilde likewise had the necessary vocal range (i.e. the necessary low notes) but, hampered by a costume that made him look like the stereotyped ‘good’ of a B-Western, didn’t quite convince one that this was a man of very special wisdom.

 I have often found it hard in thinking about The Magic Flute whether Schickaneder and Mozart intended us to make the same mistake as Tamino in the first act (i.e. to believe the Queen of night’s account of herself and Sarastro) or to see through her, as it were, and watch, from a position of greater understanding, Tamino making his error. A director has to make his/her choice and then to provide the audience with ‘clues’ on way or the other. Here the best ‘evidence’ lay in the conception of the Queen’s Three Ladies. Well sung by Camilla Roberts, Máire Flavin and Emma Carrington, the Ladies, on discovering the recovering Tamino, all lusted after him and their petty-jealous bickering, suggested that if they were representative of the Queen’s court and its attitudes, then we should be sceptical about some of the Queen’s claims. Their lasciviousness and triviality of mind perhaps helped to point up the contrast with the three Boys (also sung by women – all of them students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama).

 There are many difficulties and issues in this fascinating opera and good and vibrant though many of the details in this production were, it cannot be claimed that it entirely solved the problems. But to expect any one production ever to do that is probably to wish for the impossible, like expecting any production of, say, Shakespeare’s The Tempest ever to answer all the questions. There is, incidentally, a study to be written on the similarities between The Tempest and The Magic Flute – the parallel between Prospero and Sarastro as wise men whose sense of their own wisdom can make them manipulate other characters in a fashion that doesn’t fully respect those characters (eg. Ferdinand and Miranda, Tamino and Pamina; Monostatos as a kind of Caliban figure, incapable of developing into a fully human condition (Caliban has attempted to rape Miranda before Shakespeare’s play begins, just as Sarastro attempts to rape Pamina during The Magic Flute; the way in which both works are grounded in a fashionable theatrical form of their day (the Singspiel and the masque) while making it do things it had never done before; the way in which the masonic imagery of The Magic Flute finds an analogy in the alchemical imagery which pervades The Tempest. And, containing, all these and other similarities, the way in which both works deal with the regeneration of the individual and society, while also being amused by human fallibility, and the way in which in both works the comic and the profound complement one another without either aver cancelling out or superseding the other. Such parallels suggest, I think, the enormous and perplexing richness of The Magic Flute.

 Someone (I can’t now remember who!) once said that translation is impossible, and that that is the very reason why we must keep on attempting it. I would say the same thing about the production of works like The Tempest or The Magic Flute. The ‘perfect’ production will always elude us (assuming for the sake of argument that we could agree on what it would look and sound like). So we have to keep on producing it – and any worthwhile production (like any worthwhile translation of a poem, say) both illuminates certain things about the work and also makes it easier to understand why it resists ‘complete’ translation or ‘perfect’ production. This Flute was certainly worthwhile if – necessarily – ‘imperfect’.


Glyn Pursglove

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