The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is more of a cultural phenomenon than many operas. For over two hundred years writers have been arguing over the “meaning” of the work, trying to probe its Masonic mysticism. Another aspect of the opera’s reception is the attitude towards its “genre”. Some performances portray it as mere pantomime, while others give it an almost Wagnerian heaviness. The fact that it is a Singspiel also makes it slightly unusual, as the music frequently stops to give way to spoken dialogue.
The latter can cause its problems in performance, as international opera singers are not really trained to speak normally in the theatre. In the Royal Opera’s latest revival of its 2003 David McVicar production, however, there were few problems of any kind. Indeed, this was one of the best performances by the company in recent times, extremely well paced, sung, acted and spoken. It was also a comparatively speedy performance, ending a good fifteen minutes before the published finishing time.
For this, the conductor must take the credit. Perhaps the star of the show – though there were several in this performance – was Charles Mackerras, celebrating his 80th year by conducting these performances. The orchestra was far less sluggish than when Colin Davis conducted this production two years ago, and from the overture onwards there was a focus and drive to its playing that carried the performance. Mackerras’ reading does not sound rushed, but it is generally on the fast side, which made the opera sound fresh and invigorating.
Vocally, the cast was fairly even, but for me the stand-out performance was by Rebecca Evens, making her debut in the role of Pamina. It really is worth going to see this Flute just to hear Evans. Unlike some of the other singers, she warmed up immediately, giving an absolutely ravishing performance of the Pamina/Papageno duet Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen. She shone in all the ensembles and gave an unconventionally fast performance of her aria Ach, ich fühl’s – and it worked.
Papageno was played by the ever-wonderful Simon Keenlyside. True, his is not the largest of voices, but what he does with it is a miracle. He somehow brings a Lied-singer’s refinement to a role that is often played for laughs, while still maintaining the comic side of Papageno.
Will Hartmann’s Tamino took a little longer to grow on me, but by the end of the first act he had managed to recover from a shaky and excessively heavy start to produce a luxuriant tone. Similarly, the veteran Jan-Hendrik Rootering did not project particularly well in his first couple of appearances, but later regained the warm tone shown in his 2002 Hans Sachs (in Wagner’s Meistersinger) to provide a satisfying performance. The fiendishly difficult role of the Queen of the Night was tackled with admirable confidence and panache by Anna-Kristiina Kaappola. Her upper range is extremely secure and unstrained, but the subtler side of the music (for instance in the recitative to her first aria, O zittre nicht) sometimes eluded her.
Special credit should go to the Three Ladies, who were outstanding. Gillian Webster, Clarissa Meek and in particular Yvonne Howard (as the Third Lady) got the show off to a fabulous start with outstandingly pure singing in these roles. Gail Pearson was a beautiful Papagena, and John Graham-Hall made sure that Monostatos’ passages were elegantly phrased.
The chorus was very impressive too, and David McVicar’s production has benefited from being directed here by Lee Blakeley. While John Macfarlane’s sets remain a little too dark – some contrast would be welcome occasionally – the action seems more focused than last time around, and the elements of magic, mystery, lies and love were brought together in a very special evening.