Fine Singing is the Best Feature of ENO’s Magic Flute Revival

17/03/2019

Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw) / Ben Gernon (conductor). London Coliseum, 14.3.2019. (MB)

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) & Lucy Crowe (Pamina) © Donald Cooper

Production:

Director – Simon McBurney
Associate Director & Movement – Josie Daxter
Set designs – Michael Levine
Costumes – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting – Jean Kalman & Mike Gunning
Video – Finn Ross
Sound design – Gareth Fry & Matthieu Maurice

Cast:

Tamino – Rupert Charlesworth
Three Ladies – Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson
Papageno – Thomas Oliemans
Queen of the Night – Julia Bauer
Monostatos – Daniel Norman
Pamina – Lucy Crowe
Three Spirits – Guillermo Fernandez-Aguaya Martin, Richard Wolfson, Nao Fukui
Speaker – Jonathan Lemalu
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
First Priest/First Armoured Man – David Webb
Second Priest/Second Armoured Man – David Ireland
Papagena – Rowan Pierce

When Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute was first staged by ENO, it needed, I think it fair to say, some further work. That it seemed to have received at the time of its first revival, although there was certainly room for more. (Is there not always?) Here, upon its second revival, I could not help but think that there had been something of a reversion, or at least that a general aggressive silliness to the audience made it feel so. Is it really quite so side-splittingly hilarious for someone to write ‘The Magic Flute’ on a board, or for someone to take a photograph? (Worse still, is it really necessary to applaud within a number? A conductor should at least stamp upon such practices, rather than indulge them by pausing.) The most obviously ‘Complicité’ elements of the action, or better its framing, are still handled very well: in general lightly worn, the metatheatricality of sound effects, paper birds, and other ‘workings’ has meaning, wit, and if not quite poignancy, at least permits thoughts of that order.

A balance is, of course, very difficult to strike in a work with so many competing demands, tendencies, sources, strands of reception; some might argue that it is better not even to try, instead concentrating on one or two. Perhaps. Something more all-embracing is, I think, required or at least desirable. This production certainly attempts that – and sometimes succeeds. It is certainly preferable to its predecessor (Nicholas Hytner), which did not even seem to try. What I missed on this occasion was a greater integration between different strands. A wartime setting seems hinted at, perhaps more than that. (Or is it just a fondness for combat fatigues?) Likewise a somewhat sinister bureaucracy for Sarastro’s brotherhood. (‘Of course’, you might reply, not without reason.) Alas, the logic, the mystery, the magic that might bind these to the rest of what is going on, do not seem to be there; either that, or – perfectly possible, this – I missed them. Inclusion of the Queen of the Night at the close is now such a cliché that it barely registers: nothing wrong with it in itself, but why? Again, it seems unmotivated. The work’s cosmos is unusually varied – not least because, written for a non-court-theatre, and as a Singspiel, it offered librettist and composer far greater freedom than they would ever have been granted for an opera seria or indeed an opera buffa. Making sense of that cosmos and its communicating through words, gesture, and music are key to a success in performance only intermittently realised here.

Stephen Jeffreys’s translation sometimes departs considerably from Schikaneder, yet offers welcome relief from the preening self-regard of usual suspects. The translation ‘Queen of Night’ – reproduced in the programme – is a bit odd: not incorrect, yet a departure from universal usage to ends unclear. More seriously, why are the Armoured Men (Geharnischter) listed in the programme as ‘Armed Men’, not at all the same thing? Do such things matter? Yes, especially for a company that prides itself on presenting works in English – and, for once, presented a good case for doing so, the cast’s diction proving uncommonly fine.

For the evening’s true rewards were to be found in the singing – and stage performances more generally. Rupert Charlesworth proved an excellent Tamino, beauty of vocal line allied to unmistakeable sincerity of purpose. It would have been a strange audience member indeed who did not root for him and Lucy Crowe’s equally touching, finely sung Pamina. Julia Bauer’s Queen of (the) Night came as close as many, closer than most, to fulfilling Mozart’s absurd demands. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno proved a worthy successor to Schikaneder himself, alert to the role’s competing demands without ever alerting us to their difficulty. Brindley Sherratt’s considered – never too considered – Sarastro, Daniel Norman’s lively Monastatos, a fine trio of Ladies and pair of Priests/Armoured Men attested to a casting in depth that has not always been in evidence in recent years at the Coliseum, but which proved very welcome indeed.

Ben Gernon’s conducting had much to be said for it: a few rushed passages notwithstanding, generally sane and varied tempi; command and coordination of the orchestra in the pit and the singers on stage; and undoubted knowledge of the score. What it lacked, at least for me, was any sense of magic, of awe. Partly, that seemed owed to a determination to keep the orchestra down, strings in particular. So much magic and meaning are to be found not on stage, in the pit, that much, alas, was lost. Moreover, as with the production, a sense of greater structure, of the construction of a musico-dramatic world, often proved elusive. How does it make sense for Papageno and the Queen of the Night to feature in the same work, indeed to interact meaningfully? How, moreover, does it make sense for a neo-Bachian chorale prelude and the Papageno-Papagena duet not only to coexist, but to form part of a coherent, meaningfully dramatic whole? The answer may be magical as much as logical; it may not be reducible to words. Karl Böhm and Colin Davis knew how to accomplish this. So have directors such as Achim Freyer and David McVicar, both surely close to their best here. This is where the order’s ultimate wisdom lies, its secrets vouchsafed to and by a band of initiates whom we should treasure. We continue, it seems, to search for an interpretative Tamino and Pamina to join them.

Mark Berry

For more about ENO’s performances click here.

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