Die Zauberflöte

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 29 January 2008 3 stars

Magic Flute credit:  Bill Cooper

For this third revival of David McVicar's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, we were lucky to have two of the greatest Papagenos of recent years onstage.

Of course, Simon Keenlyside – now surely indispensable to the role in this production – took on the character with his usual verve, but the other show-stealing performance came from Sir Thomas Allen, formerly an admired Papageno before graduating to the part of the Sprecher, the Speaker of the Temple, who pops up to set Tamino on the right path in one of the most important scenes of the opera towards the end of Act I.

Sir Thomas' feeling of text, his gravitas and his charisma were outstanding in this performance – one even noticed his presence for a few spoken lines in the large scene at the start of the second act.

Unfortunately, though, Allen's sense that this opera is about some of the profoundest issues that mankind has to deal with was not shared by most of the rest of the cast, who put in capable but largely unmemorable performances.

I remember that when the production was last revived in 2005 with Charles Mackerras in the pit and Rebecca Evans as Pamina, it took on a kind of glow that was well suited to the special colour of the score, something which it didn't have on previous occasions. However, McVicar's creation seems problematic in this revival, partly because of a lack of Personenregie or direction of the singers (possibly due to McVicar's absence from the revival?). John Macfarlane's sets are fabulously atmospheric and beautiful, even if the stage machinery was rather noisy at this performance, but McVicar seems keener on exploring the idea of the Singspiel as an aspect of eighteenth-century theatre than on the deeper messages offered by Schikaneder's text and Mozart's score. The functions of the production are self-consciously overt: the serpent in the opening scene is manipulated by visible stagehands; the rope holding up the three boys' flying machine (pictured) is deliberately thick; actors rise through trap doors to provide Papageno's noose and wine; Sarastro appears with a live falcon, saluting the trend for live birds in the theatre of Handel and Mozart; and the bare tree backdrop towards the end is covered by another backdrop of a tree with leaves which descends from above. It's all tremendously attractive and well-observed, and the evidence of Enlightenment paraphernalia, such as the scientific apparatus in the Speaker's scene, adds to the sense of time.

Magic Flute credit:  Bill CooperBut I don't think it's particularly touching or funny, two of the primary characteristics of a great production of Die Zauberflöte. Tamino in particular is such an unthinking, unmotivated figure on the stage that one feels little engagement with his journey; since this is the focus of the opera, it's a huge problem. McVicar rises to the occasion with some delightfully silly pranks for the comic moments – having Monostatos and his cronies join hands and lark about like a Broadway chorus line, for instance – but I feel it cheapens Papagena's character to change her from a beggar woman to a hooker. As he says himself, Papageno is seeking someone decent and honest, and it undercuts his quest for happiness to land him with a bimbo. In spite of the excellent thunderclaps, there's also an absence of danger – partly due to the decision to make the machinery for the serpent so obvious – and in consequence, it doesn't feel like there's much at stake here. In short, the production does not deal with the story as if it were a matter of life or death.

The vocal performances varied dramatically in quality, too. Keenlyside's singing, acting, cartwheels, whistling and even imitation of birdsong were as captivating as ever, though to a small degree it felt like he was trying to overcompensate for the inertia of some of the others (for which one can't really blame him). Genia Kühmeier was a convincing Pamina and projected more strongly than most of her colleagues, even if she slightly lacks the creamy tone of the likes of Rebecca Evans and Lucia Popp; her G minor aria was a highlight. But Christoph Strehl was heavily strained as Tamino, struggling to remain in tune or sing with any legato through the break between his middle and upper registers in his big arias. Stephen Milling lacked dramatic focus as Sarastro, though he sang fluently; John Graham-Hall camped it up nicely as Monostatos.

Magic Flute credit:  Bill CooperErika Miklósa struggled with the coloratura in the middle register of her voice in both of her arias, but otherwise I thought her interpretation of the Queen of the Night was quite fascinating. She sang with an unusual level of musicality, varying the dynamics more than any other soprano I've heard in this role, and attempted to make the character three-dimensional rather than a stock villain. I thought the Three Ladies were vocally very weak, indeed almost completely inaudible at the beginning, and they weren't remotely menacing, but Young Artist Kishani Jayasinghe was a sweet Papagena.

Though not as disastrous as his Figaro at ENO a couple of years ago, Roland Böer's conducting of this score was disappointing, especially compared to Mackerras' revelatory reading in 2005. The coordination of instruments in the Overture was very peculiar, with too much weight on the horns – indeed it was a very brass-heavy performance. Speeds were often too fast for the singers, notably in Tamino's 'Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton', but in other places a lack of momentum (caused by Böer's unassertive and unclear beat) made the performance drag. The biggest problem for me was that he simply didn't conjure up the colours, sounds and feelings which make this amongst the greatest scores written for the opera house.

The Magic Flute can be a life-changing experience, but it wasn't here. Nevertheless, there's much to enjoy with the entertainment of the production and Keenlyside's electric Papageno.

By Dominic McHugh

Read our in-depth interview with Simon Keenlyside about his preparations for playing Papageno in this production, and his forthcoming roles in Wozzeck in Paris and Don Carlo at Covent Garden, here.