David McVicar’s tried and trusted production of Die Zauberflöte returns to Covent Garden  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Leo Hussain (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 8.11.2019. (CC)

The Royal Opera’s Die Zauberflöte (c) Tristram Kenton

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

Tamino – Benjamin Hulett
Pamina – Elsa Dreisig
Papageno – Vito Priante
Papagena – Yartitza Véliz
Queen of the Night – Tuuli Takala
Monostatos – Rodell Rosel
Sarastro – Stefan Cerny
First Lady – Kiandra Howarth
Second Lady – Hongni Wu
Third Lady – Nadine Weissmann
Speaker – Darren Jeffrey
First Priest – Harry Nicoll
Second Priest – Donald Maxwell
First Armoured Man – Andés Presno
Second Armoured Man – Julian Close
First Boy – Richard Wolfson
Second Boy – Joshua Abrams
Third Boy – William James

For this seventh revival of David McVicar’s production of Die Zauberflöte, Barbara Lluch was in charge of the revival. She contributes a fine essay in the programme booklet about the atmosphere behind the scenes in preparation for this run. There is a sense of familiarity now to this production, which I reviewed initially in 2013 (review) and then, most recently, in 2017 (review). The production retains its liminal nature, Janus-faced between fairy tale and mystic statement. There are some nice references: the starry ‘sky’ and massive crescent moon refer to an 1816 production of the opera, for example. The serpent remains animated by persons operating sticks; in Act 1, we enter Sarastro’s bookish study. The Ladies of the Night are dressed in black goth-like outfits (fitting that this is the weekend of Witchfest 2019 …). The giant sun of the opera’s finale felt more satisfying on this occasion, somehow, perhaps because the second act had a distinct trajectory in this performance. True, there is much that is enchanting here, but enchantment in the magickal sense is low.

The orchestra, with guest concert master Magnus Johnston, was conducted by Leo Hussain, whose major achievement at Covent Garden so far seems to have been Enescu’s Oedipe in 2016 (Mark Berry’s review is here); his 2018 Tosca at San Francisco was reviewed on Seen and Heard International here. For the first act, one feared Hussain was a kind of Haenchen-lite: Hartmut Haenchen’s Don Giovanni , just a couple of months ago, contained some of the most somnambulant Mozart encountered in many a moon. Hussain’s speeds in the first act were often just under tempo (as opposed to markedly so, but enough to sap some energy), while the second act seemed to find him more comfortable with some faster speeds.

There were no crowd-pulling billboard names in the cast, so it was interesting to see what came out of the mix. We have the Ladies of the Night, but in another sense it was most definitely Ladies’ Night. From the Three Ladies at the opening (superbly balanced, with Jette Parker Artist Hongnu Wu giving a fine, creditable Second Lady) to the main roles, there was an equivalence of excellence. One also notes Kiandra Howarth as First Lady, whose Eurydice (Gluck) for the Mozartists in May this year was so impressive (review).

First among these equals was the Pamina, French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig, making her Royal Opera debut (she is a member of the Berlin State Opera, where she has previously sung Pamina). Her voice is radiant, glowing and pure, her musicality impeccable – she was eminently believable in all respects. She participated in a Gounod Celebration in Paris in 2018 (review) – it was wonderful to see her shine, particularly in a most affecting ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’.

The Queen of the Night is a scary role, especially when one’s predecessors number Albina Shagimuratova in 2013. The stratospheric soprano of Finnish Tuuki Takala was a fine presence, only losing tone on one of the super-high notes throughout her two arias (just one is quite an achievement, after all). And it was a pleasure to experience the funny, beautifully delivered Papagena of another Jette Parker Young Artist, Yaritza Véliz.

The male component of the evening was a little more variable. Benjamin Hullett’s Tamino has been previously reported on at Garsington by my colleague Curtis Rogers (review). Here, he gave a fine, if middle-of-the-road reading, eminently pleasant without carrying the compelling qualities of Dreisig. The role of Papageno is particularly challenging in this production through its physicality. It carries two predecessors in this production both of whom were so persuasive they convinced there was no other way but theirs: Simon Keenlyside in 2013, commanding and athletic, and Roderick Williams (seen only a couple of evenings ago at he Wigmore in Finzi and Schubert), living the part with an extra kick of humour in 2017. Here, it was Vito Priante, who seems to have been very much in the public’s consciousness of late, with a successful Figaro (in the Mozart opera) at the Glyndebourne Proms performance in 2011, as the ‘other’ Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere at Covent Garden (2016) and, strong and confident as Don Fernand d’Aragon in a concert performance at the Royal Opera of Donizetti’s L’Ange di Nisida in 2018. If Papageno was perhaps not fully a part for him – a touch dour, but fine vocally – he remains a fine singer and actor.

Austrian bass Stefan Cerny was making his Royal Opera debut also, in the part of Sarastro; he managed to capture the character’s wisdom via a voice of great beauty.  Of the smaller roles, one has to give credit to the Three Boys (from three different schools – Eltham College, Westminster School and King’s College Junior School, Wimbledon) who threw themselves enthusiastically into their important contributions.

Colin Clarke

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