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In Review > International

The Magic Flute

LONDON
English National Opera
11/7/13

In Review Magic Flute hdl 214
Johnson and Guthrie in McBurney's dark-edged Magic Flute at ENO
© Robbie Jack 2014

English National Opera's most recent Magic Flute, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bob Crowley, opened in 1988 and was only finally retired in 2013, after fifteen well-attended revivals. Its replacement, directed by Simon McBurney — writer, actor, cofounder of the experimental company Complicite and for thirty years a leading figure on the experimental wing of English theater — had a lot riding on it. The show was designed by Michael Levine (sets) and Nicky Gillibrand (costumes). ENO presumably hopes that, like its predecessor, the McBurney Flute will become a semi-permanent feature of the local operatic landscape.

Pre-performance auguries were at least reasonably good. Practiced and expert though he is in many dramatic genres, McBurney had previously staged just one opera — Alexander Raskatov's Dog's Heart (2010), seen at various houses, including ENO and La Scala, and widely adjudged a major success as a production, even if the score itself was generally accounted feeble. Though regarded as a masterpiece, Mozart's final singspiel could be viewed as intractable in terms of its material — a blend of broad Viennese comedy and philosophical high-mindedness, part pantomime and part Enlightenment (specifically Masonic) manifesto — were it not that Mozart's score, the most diverse in style he ever produced, manages to hold the entirety of the piece miraculously together.

Here, with the orchestra raised up in the pit to the level of the stage, it sounded consistently lively and colorful under the dynamic baton of Hungarian-born Gergely Madaras, now in his late twenties and winner of the first ENO Charles Mackerras Fellowship; his easy command of both stage and orchestral forces revealed a major talent promising much for the future.

The physical show looked gloomy. A good deal of the action took place on a central wooden platform that regularly rose and fell over the course of the evening. It was accompanied by busy video design (by Finn Ross) and even some sound design — mostly bird noises (Gareth Fry). The modern costuming was largely dark, with grey, black and dirty browns predominating. Attended by a group of actors carrying and waving paper birds, baritone Roland Wood, as Papageno, was allowed more lively colors — yellow, a dash of blue — to give some vividness to a portrayal most notably defined by a strong Yorkshire accent that stood in for humor and charm — both of which were in short supply; in her brief appearances, his Papagena — the warm, likeable young lyric soprano Mary Bevan — easily outclassed him.

Tenor Ben Johnson sang a decently shapely Tamino, though one hampered — like most of the performances — by the awkwardness of playwright Stephen Jeffreys's version of Schikaneder's libretto, which often did a poor job of matching the natural stresses of the English language with Mozart's note-values. Soprano Devon Guthrie turned in a vocally ordinary Pamina. More striking was German soprano Cornelia Götz's Queen of the Night, with all the high notes cleanly and precisely articulated, even if her smallish soprano smudged the triplets in the second aria. The exact nature of her character's identity and relationship to Sarastro remained mysterious. She was portrayed as an elderly woman starting out with a walking stick and ending up in a wheelchair. Her three attendant women were dressed in combat fatigues. 

Most memorable of the principals, though, was James Creswell as Sarastro, who might have been the leader of some modern religious cult in his grey suit and tie. His ample, even bass provided rich sonority throughout the range of both his arias, giving gravitas, too, to a character whose role once again appeared more ambiguous than usual. The overall impression was musically more than respectable, but the opaque, solemn staging seemed to miss the popular potential of the piece by a mile. Let's hope the company has better luck in February, when the replacement for Jonathan Miller's Little-Italy Rigoletto — another long-term hit — arrives on the Coliseum stage. spacer

GEORGE HALL

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