The Royal Opera’s Rigoletto and Salome may have seen David McVicar labelled as the director of raunch and gore, but this overlooks the fact that the vast majority of his productions – that pair included – are finely balanced affairs. His Die Zauberflöte of 2003, now enjoying its fourth revival, takes a highly satisfying approach that successfully bridges the gap between the opera’s fun and religious elements, its obvious magic and deeper symbolism.
It does this by offering a relatively quiet staging that nonetheless allows each of the opera’s disparate elements to breathe uninhibited. John McFarlane’s set, coolly yet brilliantly lit by Paule Constable, exudes grandeur through the columns that run along the sides. The resulting area proves large enough to tolerate a huge dopey looking serpent taking centre-stage at the start, and if Mozart’s final opera is, as Sarah Lenton describes it, a “jumble of farce and sublimity” the former element requires as much attention as the latter.
The monumental nature of the space also emphasises the tininess of Pamina and Papageno as they huddle to reflect on love in ‘Bei Männern’, while the infrastructure is capable of evoking a variety of moods. When the backdrop is removed to reveal the constellations of the sky a very different atmosphere suddenly heralds in the Queen of the Night.
As Tamino, Charles Castronovo successfully imbues his beautiful ‘Italianate’ tenor sound with a thicker edge as befits this more ‘German’ of the Mozart operas. Ekaterina Siurina as Pamina is possessed of a brilliantly pure, yet rich, soprano, and the sight (as well as sound) of her delivering the heartfelt ’Ach, ich fühl’s’ to the statuesque Tamino and crouching Papageno cannot fail to move.
The handsome, muscular Christopher Maltman would not be my immediate idea of a clownish Papageno, a role that he first took here in 2008, but that is perhaps what makes his performance so engaging. It is obvious that he enjoys throwing himself into such a role, although this should not imply a brash, happy-go-lucky approach. This is an acutely observed portrayal, with highly subtle gestures and a strong tinge of melancholy adding to the rich baritone sound. It will also be interesting to see how Simon Keenlyside, whose persona is not dissimilar to Maltman’s own, captures the part that he played in the original 2003 production when he takes over later in the run.
Of the more minor roles, Brindley Sherratt shines as Sarastro with his sumptuous bass voice, while Peter Hoare brings vocal class to his grotesque portrayal of Monastatos. Anita Watson, Hanna Hipp and Gaynor Keeble as the three Ladies, and David Butt Philip and Jihoon Kim as the Men in Armour, also stand out.
But the highest accolades go to Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night. Although she may not be the most naturalistic of actors, but she has real presence; this was an exceptional performance. ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was a revelation combining sumptuousness, subtlety and accuracy in the execution of every note, and demonstrating impeccable phrasing.
Conductor Julia Jones gives a highly pleasing account of Mozart’s score, characterised by refinement and rhythmic beauty, and she achieves the type of balance in sound that typifies the production as a whole.
On opening night Antonio Pappano dedicated the performance to Colin Davis who was the Royal Opera’s Music Director for fifteen years in an overall association that lasted for over fifty. Pappano invited the audience to acquaint themselves with Sir Colin’s extensive recording output, but also suggested that there was no better way to understand this exceptional man than to listen to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. It was a fitting tribute for a great many reasons, and not least because Sir Colin had conducted the premiere of this production in 2003, as well as its most recent revival a mere two years ago.
Casts vary slightly over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera website.
The Royal Opera’s tribute to Sir Colin Davis, where you can also leave your own message, can be found here.