United Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Actors, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Hartmut Haenchen (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 15.9.2021. (MB)
Director – Sir David McVicar
Revival director – Dan Dooner
Designs – John Macfarlane
Lighting – Paule Constable
Movement – Leah Hausman, Angelo Smimmo
Tamino – Bernard Richter
Pamina – Salome Jicia
Papageno – Huw Montague Rendall
Queen of the Night – Brenda Rae
Sarastro – Krzysztof Baczyk
Monostatos – Michael Colvin
Papagena – Haegee Lee
Speaker – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Three Ladies – Alexandra Lowe, Hanna Hipp, Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Two Priests – Harry Nicoll, Donald Maxwell
Two Armoured Men – Alan Pingarrón, James Platt
Three Boys – Rafael Flutter, Benjamin Jardim, Victor Wiggin
David McVicar’s 2003 Magic Flute production is really starting to look — more to the point, feel — its age. When fresh and new, especially when conducted by Colin Davis, it had a winning sense of theatrical wonder. If it never tried to plumb the work’s Enlightenment, Rosicrucian, or other depths, it left open possibilities in performance for others to do so. There was striking imagery in John Macfarlane’s designs and the story was told with clarity and intelligence — even if the final scene always seemed a little trite. Now, however, on its nth revival, much has degenerated into mere silliness. There is enough there to remind us of what it once was, with stronger direction, but enough missing to have one regret its lack. Seeing the first night of this revival on the same day that Nadine Dorries was named Culture Secretary suggested a rare moment of Dorries enlightenment, given her strange claim that ‘left-wing snowflakes’ had somehow managed to ‘dumb down’ pantomime. Once we reached the stage of fart jokes, I began to wonder whether, politics and flakiness aside, Dorries might, perish the thought, have unwittingly hit on a point. I suspect coronavirus restrictions played a part, getting in the way not only of interaction but some of the more ambitious mechanical elements, but it was difficult not to think more interesting solutions might have been explored. Perhaps there was simply not enough rehearsal time.
Singing, at least, was in another league. Bernard Richter’s Tamino was everything one could reasonably expect: alluring of tone, careful of words, warmly sympathetic. Huw Montague Rendall’s Papageno proved both lively and thoughtful, likewise respectful of the text, whist appreciating that it is the starting- and not the end-point for a performance. His was a properly physical performance, which nonetheless appreciated that there is much more to the character than that. Salome Jicia’s beautifully sung and acted Pamina and Brenda Rae’s astonishingly accurate, far from entirely unsympathetic Queen of the Night impressed similarly. The Three Boys can sometimes prove a weak link, but not here, Rafael Flutter, Benjamin Jardim, Victor Wiggin comprising an uncommonly fine trio. Krzysztof Baczyk initially sounded a little underpowered as Sarastro, but came into his own in the second act. Choral singing had its moments, in positive and less positive ways.
Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting could have been worse. Indeed, I have heard much worse, though a rushed, scrappy Overture, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on decidedly sub-par form, was cause for concern. Thereafter, breakneck tempi were not, let us be thankful, the order of the day. Indeed, speeds in themselves were rarely a problem. There was rarely much sense of grace, light, or indeed, where necessary, wisdom and weight in the orchestra and its direction, though; for that, the singers seemed more or less left to themselves. Instead, we trudged from number to number, sometimes even from bar to bar, without much sense of a greater whole. It was dutiful Kapellmeisterei, neither more nor less, a world away from Constantin Trinks’s revelatory Don Giovanni (review click here) in here July.
An unruly audience did not help, applauding, even cheering between and sometimes even in the middle of numbers: the second-act finale, for instance. That may occasionally, regrettably, happen, but Haenchen seemed to go out of his way to facilitate it. (He even turned for a bow at one point.) So, still more, did the revival direction, which went so far as to leave pauses without anyone or anything on stage. There is quietly accepting the near-inevitable; there can even be metatheatrical framing; there is also pandering to the lowest common denominator. If The Magic Flute is not about gently, joyously assisting Bildung or self-cultivation, then I do not know what is. Ultimately, though, this speaks of how tired McVicar’s production has become. Time for a change, I think.
When a work such as this is given in the original language — German at least, though little sounded especially Viennese — the dialogue needs greater attention. Fidelio often suffers similarly. Some performers were excellent in this respect, Richter and Montague Rendall first and foremost, and there were other perfectly reasonable performances. A few, however, spoke in bizarrely laboured fashion, at barely half speed. The effect was more weirdly expressionist than humorous. Given the dialogue fulfils a similar role here to recitativo secco, it deserves the same care in terms of pacing and rhythm, as well as pronunciation. Appearing to mean something would be a distinct advantage too, as would more accurate titles for those who insist on laughing uproariously at them.
For what it is worth, most of the audience seemed to love it. I was delighted to hear some excellent singing. The production may be seen on ROH Stream from Friday 1 October and is rep until 7 October.