Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2 February 2011 3.5 stars

Christopher Maltman as Papageno (Photo: © Mike Hoban/Royal Opera)In the Royal Opera's ever-growing stable of David McVicar productions, this Magic Flute, first seen in 2003 and now on its third revival, is among the most immediately and reliably appealing. Grandly theatrical and packed full of sumptuous, painterly tableaux, it is both seductive and evocative. The smart period feel accommodates several props of scientific advance—the image of the Speaker (an imposing, unflinching Matthew Best) and his astronomical model is a memorable one; and it takes seriously the libretto's deeper concerns, while seeming to question the absolute values of the Enlightenment. While the issue of Monastatos's race might have been air-brushed out, for example, nothing is done to hide the libretto's far from progressive attitude towards women. It's not all earnest philosophising, though, and McVicar finds plenty of space for humour and theatrical magic, while John MacFarlane's designs allow for fluid, dream-like transitions between the scenes.

For many the particular appeal of this revival will lie in the return Colin Davis, who conducted the production when it was new. And he presided over the evening on this occasion with an appropriate air of leisurely, humane wisdom. The orchestra played extremely well for him, the robustly bowed lines of the double basses particularly noticeable, but there was a jittery first-night feel to proceedings, as well as some tempos that bordered on the ponderous. The overture was grand but short on tension, for example (and opinion will vary regarding the extras clasping glowing orbs who parade through the theatre during it).

Tamino's opening scene had some urgency (the enormous snake a marvellously realised puppet), but when the ladies arrived (a fruity if slightly under-projected trio of  Gaynor Keeble and Jette Parker Young Artists Elisabeth Meister, Kai Rüütel), they were wont to drift from Davis's beat. Christopher Maltman's Papageno was another culprit in this regard. He is highly sympathetic in the role, but can also seem reluctant to let the voice—considerable in size, these days, and pleasantly nutty in timbre—sing out, while his desire for comedic effect occasionally flirted with over-emphasis. Franz Joseph Selig's noble basso took a little while to settle in the middle of its range, but even his avuncular Sarastro lost the beat in the final phrase of 'In diesen heiligen Hallen'. It's difficult not to locate the blame for this with the conductor, even if such problems are likely, let's hope, to iron themselves out as the run progresses. Throughout this performance, however, I was kept a little on edge.

Leading the cast, Kate Royal's Pamina is familiar, like Maltman's Papageno, from the production's previous revival. She once again brings a regal demeanour to the role, matched by a voice of considerable beauty. Her 'Ach, ich fühl's' remains a highlight, too, including a gorgeous floated G in the penultimate phrase. As an engaging Tamino, Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser brings a voice with perhaps more colour than the Mozartian norm, but one whose palette is not always perfectly controlled: the sound was rich and warm in an impressive scene before the temple, for example, but strangely unable to match Royal's elongated 'Tamino mein!' when the lovers are reunited. Jessica Pratt was making a formidable double debut as the Queen of the Night (role and house). She largely had the notes—an achievement not to be sniffed at—but little of the character. Without a piercing edge to the top of voice the coloratura was more decorous and polite than awe-inspiring, while the middle range was under-powered.

McVicar recasts Monastatos (Peter Hoare) less as the racial outsider of Schikaneder's libretto, than as a caricature of vanity. Somewhat Beckmesser-like, he is very much an insider, but one who has developed a distorted fascination the dandy-ish trappings of fashion at the expense of wisdom. As a sexual threat, then, he's not up to much; but at least he and his pandering, periwigged entourage provide some irresistible comedy. The production's major misfire, for me, is the treatment of Papagena, who seems to have escaped from the 1980s. She appears first as lamb dressed as mutton dressed as lamb, while the everyman Papageno's initial aversion to her seems to be based as much on class as anything else. It's an anachronism that sticks out in an otherwise impeccably stylish production, even if Anna Devin (another Young Artist) musters all the perky joie de vivre one could want for the role.

The production has started to show a couple of signs of wear (have the sharp points of the Queen of the Night's moon had a knock in storage?), and revival director Lee Blakely hasn't instilled in the the cast the sense of common purpose they seem to need; but it's a show that's still packed with delights to complement Mozart's score. This run, furthermore, needs a couple more performance to settle into its groove, musically speaking: something wasn't quite right here, but things can only improve.

By Hugo Shirley

Photos © Mike Hoban/The Royal Opera