Courage, Love and Laughter: Simon McBurney’s ENO Magic Flute enchants and enlightens

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, The Magic Flute: Soloists, Actors, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Erina Yashima (conductor). London Coliseum, 28.2.2024. (CSa)

Alexandra Oomens (Papagena) and David Stout (Papageno) © Manuel Harlan

Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute was composed and first performed in Vienna in 1791, five months before Mozart’s untimely death. Set to a text by Emanuel Schikaneder and billed as a ‘comedy with machines’, it is a complex and puzzling fairy tale in which pantomime, low comedy, and sophisticated symbolism combine with divine music to offer us a profound commentary on the ideals of the Enlightenment and the truth of the human condition. Contemporary accounts of the original production describe exotic costumes, magnificent scenery and props which included illuminated pyramids, fire-spitting mountains and waterfalls. It also featured a star-studded throne for the Queen of the Night; a fully feathered bird catcher, Papageno, with live caged birds; a gorgeous cushion-filled Egyptian room ready for slave master Monostatos to attempt a seduction of the opera’s heroine Pamina, an elaborately gilded temple, a triumphal carriage for the High Priest Sarastro, drawn by six lions, a moonlit bower of flowers where Pamina lay sleeping, and a rose adorned flying machine in which three cherubic boys were transported.

In stark contrast, Simon McBurney’s 2012 darkly inventive version for the Dutch National Opera, revived a third time for the English National Opera by Rachael Hewer, is played out by singers and actors who – with the notable exception of Papageno – are dressed in sombre black or grey. The setting is simplicity itself. The action takes place on or around a tilting adjustable platform jutting out from what first appears to be an empty black void. Members of the orchestra, liberated from the pit, visible, and very much part of the action, are seated just in front of the bare stage. As soon as they strike up the overture and the houselights dim, it becomes apparent that the cavernous space behind them is just a blank canvas on which set designer Michael Levine and his colleagues in lighting and sound, ingeniously project and amplify their dystopian but no less spectacular vision of Schikaneder’s mystical setting. The result is a triumph of the imagination.

Two kiosks flank the empty stage. In one we see video artist Ben Thomson at work, his screened hand chalking up on a blackboard the number of each act or spelling out the location of each scene in time to the music. Papageno is surrounded, not by a swarm of fluttering birds, but by a team of nimble-footed actors, holding pieces of rustling paper over their heads. The entrance to Sarastro’s citadel is virtually represented by an impregnable wall of antique books beamed onto the backdrop, with titles such as Nature, Wisdom and Reason embossed on their leather spines. The Temple within is a monochrome boardroom where sober-suited committee members, not priests, vote on the policies of their chairman, Sarastro. The rigorous board-approved ordeals which Tamino is forced to undergo to prove himself worthy of Sarastro’s corporate kingdom and Pamina’s hand – trials by fire and water – are powerfully evoked by immersive video events. We not only witness Tamino and his reluctant companion Papageno as they struggle to survive crackling flames and churning oceans; we also experience vicariously, and on a deeply emotional level, their spiritual journey of death and rebirth.

ENO’s The Magic Flute © Manuel Harlan

On the other side of the stage, Foley artist Ruth Sullivan skilfully utilises an arsenal of props to create the bangs, shakes, clicks, squeaks and other miscellaneous sounds demanded by the production. In one scene of highly audible slapstick, a drunken Papageno laboriously uncorks bottles of wine, pours out some of the contents, and with a stick of celery in hand, hesitantly taps Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on the half empties before turning his back on the audience to relieve himself and retune. No auditory detail was spared in Sullivan’s carefully simulated accompaniment.

The originality of the Complicité-style staging and use of brilliant technical innovation to drive it make this production spectacular. But McBurney never allows clever stagecraft to eclipse the radiance of Mozart’s music, or distract from the opera’s central themes of love, compassion and redemption.

The ENO’s Chorus and Orchestra sang and played magnificently under the lively baton of Erina Yashima, with an unsurprisingly magical contribution from principal flautist Claire Wickes.

A uniformly strong cast was distinguished by the supremely accomplished soprano Rainelle Krause as a haggard, physically impaired Queen of the Night. At once menacing and vulnerable, she packed a mighty vocal punch, whether spinning furiously in her wheelchair or attempting to steady herself on a walking stick. Possessed of a crystalline coloratura, Krause delivered her arias with inch-perfect agility. Her tempestuous account of Act II’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ (‘Hell’s vengeance’) was an object lesson in breath control. Soprano Sarah Tynan convinced as the Queen’s imprisoned daughter Pamina. Her mellow tone and incisive phrasing gracefully conveyed the character’s nobility and strength and blended well with that of her rescuer and lover Tamino who was boldly, if not so subtly, sung by US tenor Norman Reinhardt. The inevitably guano-spattered Papageno – bird-catching has its drawbacks – found richly-hued baritone David Stout on top form. Natural musicality aside, his gentle sense of whimsy and razor-sharp comic timing made for a perfect, particularly English clown. His sad-faced but tragi-comical antics with a stepladder put one in mind of the late music hall star Max Wall. He was laugh-out-loud hilarious when offering sustenance to Pamina – ‘Have some Victoria Sponge’- yet heartrendingly tender when joining her in the duet ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe’ (‘Men who feel the call of love’). After innumerable punishments and tribulations, he was rewarded with a perfect partner in the form of bright voiced Alexandra Oomens as Papagena.

There were memorable performances from Peter Hoare as the irredeemably wicked Monostatos; Carrie-Ann Williams, Amy Holyland and Stephanie Wake-Edwards as the Queen of the Night’s combat-clad Three Ladies; three well cast ‘Boys’ or, as here, Spirits – one of whom was in fact a girl now – masquerading as wizened ancients tasked with leading Tamino to Sarastro’s domain; and the redoubtable Jonathan Lemalu in the role of Speaker.

Yet it was John Relyea’s stentorian Sarastro who carried the opera’s all-embracing message of wisdom and love. Standing at the front of the stage, he solemnly observed that we live in a time of great crisis and the utmost gravity. Given the current state of the world, the significance of this zeitgeist moment was not lost on the audience, and one could detect a quiet ripple of assent across the packed house. Sarastro’s timely reminder was followed by the hymn ‘O Isis und Osiris’, a musical and deeply moving plea for wisdom, strength and patience. The aria, once described by George Bernard Shaw as ‘the only music that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God’ was, for me and I suspect for others too, an inspirational moment in McBurney’s seminal production.

Chris Sallon

Featured Image: Norman Reinhardt (Tamino) and Sarah Tynan (Pamina) © Manuel Harlan

Tamino – Norman Reinhardt
Pamina – Sarah Tynan
Papageno – David Stout
Papagena – Alexandra Oomens
The Queen of the Night – Rainelle Krause
Three Ladies – Carrie-Ann Williams, Amy Holyland, Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Monostatos – Peter Hoare
Sarastro – John Relyea
Speaker – Jonathan Lemalu
Spirits – Lucy Barlow, Ivo Clark, Ethan James
First Priest / First Armed Man – Gavan Ring
Second Priest / Second Armed Man – Ossian Huskinson

Foley Artist – Ruth Sullivan
Video Artist – Ben Thompson

Director – Simon McBurney
Revival Director – Rachael Hewer
Set designer – Michael Levine
Costume designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting director – Jean Kalman
Movement director – Josie Daxter
Revival Video designer – Jane Michelmore
Sound designer – Gareth Fry
Chorus director – Martin Fitzpatrick

1 thought on “Courage, Love and Laughter: Simon McBurney’s ENO <i>Magic Flute</i> enchants and enlightens”

  1. The musical performances respected Mozart, the stagecraft respected Schikaneder, and the direction married the two perfectly. A triumph.


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