Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Magic Flute, ENO - London Coliseum

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder

Original Director: Nicholas Hytner
Conductor: Erik Nielsen
Reviewer: Mark Valencia

In the late eighties Nicholas Hytner emerged as the golden boy of British theatre. In particular a trio of opulent productions from that period – a play at the National, a musical in the West End and an opera for ENO – garnered huge audiences, long runs and reviews to die for. The play was Alan Bennett’s dramatisation of The Wind in the Willows; the musical was Miss Saigon. Yet, of the three, only the opera survives in its original state, or something very like it. And why not? After all, Hytner’s is a magic Flute.

This richly entertaining production first saw the light of day in March 1988 and now, 13 revivals on, it has joined Rigoletto and The Mikado as one of ENO’s most reliable cash cows. This will come as no surprise to anyone who caught it in a previous outing: Hytner’s imaginatively joyous staging, complemented by Bob Crowley’s sizzling set and costume designs, raises smiles and spirits in equal measure. This Flute is feel-good opera. All it needs to hit the spot are good musical direction and a strong cast.

If you don’t know the plot of Schikaneder’s tale, it’s a bit of a mess but here goes. Outwardly nice Queen of the Night sends guileless Tamino (hero) to rescue her beautiful daughter Pamina (heroine) from the clutches of outwardly nasty Sarastro, her enemy. But appearances of nice and nasty can be deceptive, as hero and heroine grow to realise by the opera’s end. After two or three hours of quests, jests and tests, good triumphs over evil and we go home happy.

Ian Rutherford takes the revival reins for Flute 14 and he brings out all the visual wit and sprightliness of Hytner’s original. Such shortcomings as there are reside in the poor delivery of spoken dialogue by certain players (though emphatically not by the Sarastro of Robert Lloyd, that great basso profundo whose voice still rips your guts despite his having reached an age when most singers wobble by the wayside). Sarah-Jane Davies as Pamina is fine when she sings, but with the spoken word she falls short. Likewise, variously, the members of the ENO Chorus. As for Roderick Williams’s athletic, show-stealing Papageno, bird-catcher and comic relief, his otherwise bravura performance is compromised by a habit of leaping from oo-arr bumpkin to RP baritone whenever he stops speaking and starts singing. I cannot imagine Hytner sanctioning such jarring inconsistency.

The ENO Orchestra plays with idiomatic finesse under the baton of Erik Nielsen, who makes an auspicious house d├ębut, and the evening as a whole reaches the highest musical standards. Its delights are enhanced by Jeremy Sams’s witty translation, even though the unavoidable ENO surtitles remove all spontaneity and make his careful word-setting read like close-rhymed doggerel.

This free translation allows Sams and Hytner to dispense with the ticklish racial problem inherent in the role of Monostatos. As portrayed by Stuart Kale he is a creepy clown with a comb-over, more Ko-Ko than the would-be rapist who so wickedly abuses his status as overseer of the masonic temple.

That pinpoints a problem with this production: it’s a cartoon. Crowley’s designs may echo the neo-classical-meets-Egyptian mood of the original, but against this canvas Hytner simply has fun. In a world where all the perils are two-dimensional there are no real wounds to be healed by the spirit boys, exquisitely sung as they are by Charlie Manton, Harry Manton and Louis Watkins. Emily Hindrichs, for all her coloratura stratospherics, is more Morticia Addams than Queen of the Night, and Amanda Forbes’s Papagena is a comedy-breasted tea lady. Only Sarastro, Pamina and Tamino (a noble-voiced Robert Murray) escape with dignity intact.

What churlish analysis. Let us sweep aside such cavils and wish this joyous production a happy 21st birthday. Over the years it has opened countless hearts to the wonders of Mozart and been a major force for good in a dumb, dirty world. Here’s to the next 13 revivals.

Photos: Richard H Smith
London Coliseum, 24th January to 26th February 2009 (9 performances)
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