ENO’s Magic Flute Lacks Depth Despite Superb Ensemble Work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: (sung in English as The Magic Flute): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), London Coliseum, 5.2.2016. (CC)

ENO’s The Magic Flute Allan Clayton (Tamino) & Lucy Crowe (Pamina)
(c) Robbie Jack

Tamino: Allan Clayton
Pamina: Lucy Crowe
Papageno: Peter Coleman-Wright
Papagena: Soraya Mafi
The Queen of the Night: Ambur Braid
Sarastro: James Creswell
Speaker: Darren Jeffrey
Three Ladies: Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young, Rachael Lloyd
Three Spirits: Anton May, Yohan Rodas, Oscar Simms
First Priest/First Armed Man: Rupert Charlesworth
Second Priest/Second Armed Man: Frederick Long

Director: Simon McBurney
Revival Director: Josie Dexter
Sets: Michael Levine
Costumes: Nicky Gillbrand
Lighting: Jean Kalman, revived by Mike Gunning
Video Design: Finn Ross
Sound Design: Gareth Fry, revived by Matthieu Maurice

(A collaboration with Complicité)

This is the first revival of Simon McBurney’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The first run was reviewed by my colleague Mark Berry, in late 2013: here. The presence of Complicité meant that stage trickery was to be expected – and we certainly got plenty of that. We actually got to see how much of this trickery was generated, also: at either end of the stage we could see someone write on a screen (which was then projected over the stage) or create sound effects. The projected writing seemed to refer to a contemporary trend: I was reminded of Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni over at the Royal Opera House, for example. Shying off the electronic trickery, the representation of Papageno’s birds in fluttering paper form, carried by real people, is arresting on first viewing; however I rather suspect repeated viewing will cause the novelty to pall.

There’s plenty of interaction, too: it all feels very much as if the audience is part of the goings-on. From the off, the raised orchestra pit brought Mark Wigglesworth and his players far more into everyone’s eye-line, and later characters were not above entering into the audience space, including squeezing past audience members. The sudden arrival of the opening chords of the Overture with no applause for the conductor walking on stage (he was already there) and the way the house lights remained up for a significant amount of time  after the music began spoke of a novel approach. Wigglesworth, reciprocating perhaps, made the music sound as fresh as the production, with textures well balanced and rhythms nicely sprung. Meanwhile, the brightness had moved to something far more resembling velvet black.

The use of video projection for the act II trials was awe-inspiring. The projections of fire in particular captured that element’s primal power. In contrast to this explosion of Nature’s energy, the be-suited members of the Masonic fraternity spoke of caricature, a boardroom conglomeration of handshakes which would not have been out of place in the Hercules Pillars public house down the road (just up from Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden and gathering place for many Masons).

And yet .. and yet … whatever the appeal of slapstick and silly rhymes in translation, Magic Flute has a depth which is simply not reflected here. The idea of trials to join a fraternal society for the greater good and for personal enlightenment, the use of ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses as the worshipped deities, all of this failed to speak with the power that it can and should. Fairytale is never just fairytale; and if it does emerge as mere fairytale, it is failed fairytale. Mozart’s achievement was to mix fairytale imagery, myth and magic into an eternal tale of the victory of Light over Dark. While Sarastro, the archetypal order leader,  might sign off a missive ‘In Lux”, it is doubtful the Sarastro of this particular evening would. No insult is meant to James Creswell’s fine assumption, however, which was handled with confidence in all respects.

Mark Wigglesworth is justifying English National Opera’s faith in him. There was much fine conducting here, and not just in that Overture. Tempos were well chosen and in general the orchestra displayed a fine sense of ensemble. Members of the orchestra in fact became protagonists (the celesta player is the obvious one, but so did the Principal Flute Claire Wickes, who had to leave the pit and play onstage). To complement this, the cast was almost uniformly excellent; if not the casting. The Papageno, Peter Coleman-Wright, excellent though he was in his delivery both vocal and comedic, was a rather older Papageno, and certainly much older than his Papagena, the sweet and deliciously-voiced Soraya Mafi. It was a curious mismatch from this angle. Mafi made her ENO debut in Mike Leigh’s Pirates of Penzance (which I reviewed in May last year); here she was simply delicious (she will return to sing Karolka Jenufa in June).

The show almost belonged to Allan Clayton’s Tamino. Clayton, a former ENO Harewood Artist and a fabulous singer, projecting well and of the greatest lyricism (“Dies Bildnis”, to use the more familiar German, was the perfect illustration of this). His acting, too, is good. But by far the show-stealing performance was that of British soprano Lucy Crowe (most recently seen at ENO in The Indian Queen in February 2015). Her dramatic grasp was almost as gripping as the sheer beauty of her voice and the sheer rightness of her phrasing (Crowe is much associated with early music and that came across in her portrayal here, and magnificently). She tired not one jot throughout the entire performance, and it is worth noting that hers and Clayton’s voices mingled beautifully.

The wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night was the young Canadian soprano Ambur Braid, making her UK debut. Braid has previously tackled, elsewhere, roles such as Donizetti’s Lucia and Handel’s Semele; against a starry background, her two main numbers were absolutely show-stopping. Her voice is properly, for this role, edgy, and she has the amazing ability to actually stay in time for Mozart’s many demands. As Monostatos, ENO stalwart John Graham-Hall comes across as an East End funeral director; and very well it works, in the context of this production, as well (Graham-Hall takes all performances except March 14, wherein Murray Kimmins takes over).

The Three Spirits (ex-Three Boys), dressed as eternally ancient yet boy-sounding relatives to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, were excellent and helped add to the supernatural aura of it all; similarly the Three Ladies worked beautifully with each other and as a unit. All of which points to what we know is ENO’s core strength: to work as an ensemble. This everyone did, and beautifully, from the Armed Men (doubling as the two Priests) all the way up to the superb array of principals.

So why a certain feeling of being cheated at the end? Well, there’s a difference between the true depth of fairytale, the eternal depth of ancient religion (Egypt) and the frippery of mere pantomime. And there’s just too much of the pantomime feel to this production, which undermines and undervalues Mozart’s masterpiece.

Colin Clarke