It is hard to argue with those who, from time to time, expect new productions of old masterpieces. New approaches to old works need to be considered to keep with the changing times and to keep great works alive. However, I for one find it a shame that Nicholas Hytner’s excellent production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute—first staged in 1988—is now receiving its last run at the English National Opera.
Hytner provides insight, taste, hope on several levels, beauty, a respectful reverence for the timeless quest for knowledge and –last but not least – he provides his audience with charming entertainment. The Egyptian priests and, in particular, the three Spirits look angelic but also even Jewish in their robes, thus apparently suggesting the inclusion of three cultures (on top of the Masonic elements) that are at peace with each other and united in the search for the universal truth. Papageno’s live birds at the start of the opera are white doves (trained evidently brilliantly by George Fay) that surely set the tone for hope and peace. The appearance of a specially chosen young boy on conclusion – perhaps a young Sarastro – may indicate themes of re-birth and continuation.
Stage and costume design by Bob Crowley are stunning in their simplicity but, at the same time, significant also for their use of meaningful colours and subtle references to both Masonic and philosophical symbols. The crack in the wall is the obvious entrance and exit point on stage but could also represent cracks in some of the story line (like those spun early on by Papageno about the serpent, and later by The Queen of the Night and Monostatos). Those beautiful red, blue and white colours on stage could grace many paintings of Mozart’s period. Lighting design by Nick Chelton blends into the overall concept seamlessly.
Apart from feasting the eye and pleasing the intellect, the first night of this – regrettably last – run of Hytner’s staging provided some excellent singing. Kathryn Lewek was sensational as The Queen of the Night. She produced all those acrobatic vocal runs effortlessly, without a single note out of place. But Lewek also displayed dramatic understanding as well as musical nuances. Elena Xanthoudakis was a pure but strong – rather than fragile – Pamina all the way through, justifying Daniel Heartz’s suggestion that the opera should be titled Pamina. Her Act Two scene with The Queen of the Night was gripping drama in every sense of the word.
Duncan Rock’s portrayal of Papageno, including his subtle communication with the audience throughout (as surely envisaged by Schikaneder, the opera’s librettist and first Papageno), was fully credible. So much so, that it was no surprise to witness a lady in the audience offering to come to the rescue when Papageno considers hanging himself. It is a credit to Rock that he handled this incident skilfully (and acknowledged it gracefully at the curtain calls). Rock’s musical interpretation is full of tonal nuances and serves Mozart’s harmonies superbly.
72 year old Robert Lloyd brings true dignity to the part of Sarastro. In spite of his age, Lloyd’s voice is still rich and he reached both the high and low ends of his musical material with seemingly very little effort. Another veteran, Adrian Thompson, sang and portrayed the role of Monostatos with vocal clarity and fully credible dramatic menace and frustration. In spite of the librettist Schikaneder’s specification, in this production Monostatos is not black; hence we were saved the embarrassment of a white face blackened as in some black and white minstrel shows. (I hasten to add that, of course, a black singer could also be perfect for the part).
Shawn Mathey (Tamino) might have suffered first night nerves although it is possible that he is not a natural communicator. In fairness, his confidence seemed to have been growing during the performance but, for me, the lyric beauty of the part was rarely present, hence it was hard to believe that he was so very much in love with Pamina. The heroic elements were perfectly portrayed—which made me wish I could hear Mathey singing Wagner rather than Mozart.
Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen were excellent individually as well as an ensemble as The Three Ladies, while the short but perky Rhian Lois seemed to be born for the part of Papagena both vocally and physically. Nathan Vale and Barnaby Rea were unusually strong and truly uplifting as the two Priests as well as the two Armed Men. At last but not least, the trio of the Three Spirits must be praised: Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh looked and sounded angelic, acting with a professionalism belying their tender ages. I could not help being deeply moved whenever they were on stage.
On the basis of this performance, I don’t share the enthusiasm offered by audience and critics alike about conductor Nicholas Collon. Ensemble between singers on stage as well as between stage and orchestra was often untidy. On occasions tempi tended to be too fast for allowing the notes to be heard. For instance, Papageno’s magic bells in his mock suicide scene – played on what sounded like a glockenspiel by an unnamed player – was so fast, that the virtuoso glockenspiel part lost its charm, let alone magic. The opening of the subsequent Finale also felt rushed, not allowing the Three Spirits the divine ambience which they might have had within a slightly calmer tempo. In fairness to Collon, this was not only a first night but his ENO debut too. In subsequent performances tempi may be calmer in some parts.
Magic by title, magic by production: this Magic Flute is definitely not to be missed.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Alastair Muir