If Simon Keenlyside's Papageno was the great performance of the first cast of the Royal Opera's revival of David McVicar's production of Die Zauberflöte, Kate Royal's Pamina was the undoubted highlight of the second. She was supported by an ensemble which gelled far more convincingly to produce a life-enhancing performance of Mozart's masterpiece.
One problem remains: Roland Böer's conducting. Too often the 'right' tempo eluded him, he looked unable to relax and failed to exercise the seemingly effortless authority that the best conductors of this score do. This meant that, again, there were moments of unsure ensemble, with an occasional lack of co-ordination between pit and stage. None of this, though, was enough to detract significantly from some outstanding performances.
Kate Royal has a natural advantage as Pamina in that, living up to her name, she possesses the kind of regal countenance that others have to work to achieve. This means that she can concentrate on acting the role and it's been a long time since I've seen Pamina performed so movingly, portrayed as a red-blooded, passionate woman rather than a mere archetype. There was genuine pathos as she addressed the dagger in Act Two, intent on suicide; her aria, 'Ach ich fühl's', was riven with grief, even though some might have raised an eyebrow at her choice to break her line to reflect this. Vocally, she produced some moments of stunning beauty, chief among them a heart-stopping 'Tamino mein'.
That Tamino was Pavol Breslik, making an auspicious Covent Garden debut. He has exactly the easy, lyrical voice that one hopes for in the role (he's already sung it at Glyndebourne, as well as in Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Aix-en-Provence). A handsome stage presence, he acted extremely well and portrayed confusion and fear in his scene before the temple convincingly. It was a relief too, after Christoph Strehl's forced vocalism in the first cast, to hear a tenor who blended easily into the many ensembles and negotiated the tessitura with ease.
Given how closely associated Simon Keenlyside's Papageno is with this production, it says something for Christopher Maltman's artisty, as well as the strength in depth of British baritones, that he was every bit as convincing in the role. His Papegeno is ever so slightly more vulnerable: his comic moments played with a little extra dash of camp; his sadness, if anything, more affecting; his voice employed with greater consistency across the range. At a marginally more relaxed pace, his final duet with Kishani Jayasinghe's Papagena was wonderfully buoyant, even if disaster was only narrowly avoided when, executing Keenlyside's trade-mark leap over the end of the bed to join her, his trailing leg clattered into the headboard.
There was another house debut in the form of Hans-Peter König's authoritative Sarastro. He might have had a couple of issues manoeuvring his substantial bass along Mozart's elegant melodic lines, but this was an impressive voice and in the excellently delivered dialogue a properly imposing presence. As his agent, the Speaker, Robert Lloyd was benign, sage authority personified and his remarkably well preserved bass extended down at the end of his scene with ease. Anna-Kristiina Kaappola as the Queen of the Night hit her top notes pretty securely but occasionally sounded uncomfortable. At the start of her second aria's fireworks, for example, there was an awkward tension between Böer's tempo and hers. However, her three ladies - Elizabeth Sikora and Jette Parker Young Artists Anita Watson and Monika-Evelin Liiv - were excellent, a significant improvement on those in the first cast. Vocally more secure, they were also far more successful in their delivery of the text – both spoken and sung. Adrian Thompson, accompanied by his ineffectual band of anaemic fops, turned in another virtuoso comic performance as Monastatos.
With a cast of this quality, the virtues of David McVicar's production seemed to come back into focus. We were made to identify with Tamino and Pamina along their path from confusion to enlightenment and rejoice with them as they were reunited. We respected Sarastro and the Speaker and sympathised with Papageno as Everyman – it's not for nothing that he gestures to the audience when pointing out that there are plenty of people out there who similarly seek only the more straightforward pleasures in life. I again took exception to the characterisation of Papagena, though: surely she's the typical Viennese süße Mädel - innocent and sweetly charming - so portraying her as knowingly tarty undermines our sympathy for Papageno, whose ideal she's supposed to represent.
Whereas the first cast, Keenlyside excepted, seemed lost having apparently received few pointers from revival director Lee Blakeley, everything here fitted into place. The acting was natural and compelling. This was an immensely enjoyable, moving, funny and ultimately uplifting night at the theatre.
By Hugo Shirley
Read our review of the Royal Opera's Magic Flute, cast A, here