Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has never been the easiest of pieces to stage. In nineteenth century Germany it became caught between the advocates of Italian and Romantic opera, and bridging the gap between its fun and religious elements, its obvious magic and deeper symbolism, has remained difficult to this day. How can justice be done to any of these aspects without sacrificing something of the others?
Given these problems, David McVicar’s 2003 production, now enjoying its third revival, does a good job of making sense of the jumble of farce and sublimity. It achieves this by offering a quiet staging that keeps the humorous elements under control while allowing the emotional and symbolic aspects to speak, unimpeded by an overly lavish set-up.
The production certainly has its sillier moments as the curtain rises on a dopey looking serpent, and Papageno’s entrance is accompanied by a bird pushed along on wheels. It is far better, however, to pass these props off as ironic in their humour than to risk falling flat on ones face by trying to make them more serious. Elsewhere, the staging has a pleasing understated quality. The Speaker of the Temples room finds enough to draw the eye with just a few celestial instruments and figures, the Queen of the Night appears against a backdrop of constellations in the sky, and Paule Constable’s lighting breathes a cool night time air over John MacFarlane’s set.
The staging ultimately prevails because of its simplicity. The (frequently triangular) formations made by the three Ladies (Elisabeth Meister, Kai Rtel and Gaynor Keeble on wondrous form) as they sing Ich sollte fort? are basic and stylised, but work well alongside the astute gestures that they offer up. Papageno and Paminas Bei Mnnern, welche Liebe is wonderfully effective as two tiny figures huddle at the front of the stage to reflect on love, while the Queen of the Night sees the three Ladies and smaller figures scatter around her as she sings. The simple tableau formed as Kate Royal’s Pamina puts heart and soul into Ach, ich fhl’s is also deeply moving, her passionate, but controlled, turn both contrasting and blending with the silence of the statuesque Tamino and crouching Papageno.
Some may still find the production too dull, particularly at those points where the greatest exuberance might be hoped for such as the journey through fire and water. To me, however, this scene works with the overall tenor of the production, which has been well established by then.
If, however, the staging may divide audiences it is harder to dispute the quality of Colin Davis’ conducting or the strength of the cast. The singing of both Joseph Kaiser’s Tamino and Kate Royal’s Pamina is characterised by purity of tone, beauty of line and quality of expression. Jessica Pratt has real presence as she swans about the stage as the Queen of the Night, revealing a degree of vulnerability alongside her obvious arrogance and ruthlessness. She hits all the high notes (both physically and metaphorically) in Der Hölle Rache in a performance that would be a credit to any seasoned Royal Opera House performer. To someone making their debut there it is a revelation. The firm, resonant bass voices of Franz-Josef Selig and Matthew Best also come to the fore in their magnificent performances as Sarastro and the Speaker of the Temple.
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is Christopher Maltman’s Papageno. He clearly enjoys playing this comic role, even giving his duck hat its own bow during the curtain call, and the sense of ease he projects on stage hands his comedy a certain air of effortlessness. While, however, he has a particular penchant for timing, there remains a real sadness in those eyes and his baritone voice is as rich as ever.
There is no guarantee that your heart will be stolen by the staging of this Die Zauberflöte, but mine certainly was in a pleasantly quiet way. The singing, on the other hand, is difficult to fault, and so my advice would be to weigh a doubt against a certainty and go.
David Syrus conducts on 22, 24 and 26 February.