Rarely, if ever, have I heard such stylish Mozart playing from this orchestra, which was under the inspired baton of newcomer Erik Nielsen.
Nic Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute has been in the repertoire of the ENO since 1988 and although the management threatened to kill it off last season, wisdom prevailed and it’s been brought back for another airing.
It’s a delight to report that on this latest showing, it would have been nothing less than an act of cultural vandalism of the highest scale if this Flute had got the chop. It remains as fresh, inventive and enthralling as it did twenty years ago, and there are precious few opera productions about which one can say that.
Indeed I’d be prepared to lay my neck on the line and state that this was as good a performance of this production that I’ve seen; and I’ve seen it more than ten times. Although there may have been starrier casts in the past (in the good old days when the ENO was actually an ensemble), I can’t ever remember hearing such alert, spirited and focussed playing in a Mozart opera at the Coliseum, so full marks to whoever enrolled conductor Erik Nielsen. He is young, and is currently Kapellmeister of the Frankfurt Opera, but his grasp of the score was total. The string playing was lean, there was wonderful colour from the woodwind, but despite tempos being on the fast side coordination between stage and pit was faultless.
Luckily he also had a wonderful cast to work with. Although there was some stiff competition, the star of the evening was Roderick Williams’ Papageno. He managed to combine humour with pathos and his singing and enunciation of the text was quite simply glorious. Not only can he conjure up a wealth of colour in the voice, but there’s a burnished, velvety feel to it that few singers can equal. Williams need not fear comparison with either Keenlyside or Maltman in the role, indeed if anything I thought he was better than both of them. High praise indeed.
Rising British tenor Robert Murray was a virile-sounding Tamino, whilst Sarah-Jane Davies repeated her achingly-beautiful Pamina. Emily Hindrichs made a hair-raising house debut as the Queen of the night and despite a few acidic notes here and there, managed the fiendishly difficult coloratura of the role without batting an eyelid.
Veteran bass Robert Lloyd certainly has all Sarastro’s low notes in his armoury but his garbled way with the text was most alarming. Consonants were in short supply and it sounded as though he had a large fruit in his mouth, which I sincerely hope he didn’t. He was the only cast member for whom one needed to rely on the surtitles, otherwise diction was of a uniformly high standard.
A vintage revival then, and most definitely worth catching for Nielsen’s inspired conducting, the sparkling orchestral playing and Roderick Williams’ world-class Papageno.