“Perchance to dream…” Hamlet’s soliloquy is difficult to forget whilst sitting through David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; not for its metaphorical fluidity but rather for its literal connotations: the production is like a dream, but one that continually vacillates between joy and nightmare as the opera progresses. Is this too gratuitous? For once, there is little doubt that the stark colors and movement, in tandem with the expertly executed music, did much to draw listeners into Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s Singspiel. What is most unique about the production is that rather than turning it into a dry idealistic fantasy-spectacular à la Julie Taymor, McVicar emphasizes darkly the allegorical themes intrinsic to the opera’s performance—magic, courage, love in the face of adversity, humor—by reminding audience members that dreams, like life, are not so much about the end result, but the journey.
McVicar’s production uses John Macfarlane’s set designs—or, one might argue, lack thereof for the majority of the work—to great effect. What is fantastic about having a designer create both the set and the costumes is the overall cohesiveness of presentation, sometimes lacking in McVicar’s work. In fact, this might be my favorite McVicar production for its almost perfect symmetry with the music and its themes. Macfarlane’s designs evoke seventeenth century mysticism in tandem with the brilliant chiaroscuro lighting effects of Paule Constable. The movement (this time by Leah Hausman) was logical and at times right on the mark, though I did think the band of actors gesturing around like animals may have been a bit too Disney for the ROH.
Christopher Castronovo sang a strong Tamino in voice—he sounds a bit like Gedda--but not in body and was often caught using stock gestures that tired very quickly. Ekaterina Siurina was a bubbly but still pathos ridden Pamina. Siurina’s best chemistry was actually with Christopher Maltman, who was an excellent Papageno: he sang the role very well, with a great amount of thoughtful inflection, color, and, best of all, comedic timing.
Albina Shagimuratova, in her debut, was a sparking Queen of the Night. She nailed all the coloratura and was supported by Jones in a rather large way, no small feat. Her second, more famous, aria “Der Hölle Roche” was excellent but her first, more difficult but much better, aria could have used a bit more deceptive color—something not in the music but wholly in the voice.
Turning to the Queen’s lackeys, Anita Watson, Hannah Hipp, and Gaynor Keeble made for an adequate trio of ladies: there were occasional intonation issues and several more times the diction was lost amidst the sea of brilliant (but not overpowering) conducting. Brindley Sherratt was a powerful Sarastro and a welcome reminder that there are still basses out there worthy of the label—his prolonged low Gs were something to behold indeed. Peter Hoare was an active Monostatos and vocally was on-point.
But the night would have been nothing without an excellent orchestra and first-female-conductor-this-reviewer-has-seen-at-Covent-Garden Julia Jones. The orchestra sounded the best it has all year: soul-stirring dynamics and phrasing that would turn even the most Blackberry-obsessed City banker onto Mozart, a credit to Jones’s enthusiastic and precise conducting.
With the sad news that Sir Colin Davis passed away only a day before the production premiered, the Royal Opera was wise to dedicate this run to his memory and influential legacy. I believe he would have been proud of the magnificent music making that night and, indeed, the laughs and tears it provoked.
McVicar’s production illustrates what hopefully will be a recurring trend: slightly more serious and thoughtful frameworks for the essential classics of the operatic canon.
Photos: Mike Hoban