Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Die Zauberflöte @ Royal Opera House, London

23, 26, 28 February 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11 March 2015


Toby Spence(Photo: Mark Douet)

Toby Spence
(Photo: Mark Douet)

For the second time in a month, David McVicar edged nervously on to the ROH stage to take his bow, and as with January’s Andrea Chénier there was no need to hesitate, since this revival of his cerebral production of Mozart’s discussion about the ways in which man may attain enlightenment still delights, and this time it has a cast who mostly merit another visit to see it.

Amongst the ‘discoveries’ of the evening in vocal terms, the most promising was Janai Brugger, making her house debut as a lustrous Pamina; singing with directness and sweetness of tone yet with an edge to her phrasing, she resembled the unforgettable Ileana Cotrubas in this role. She was beautifully partnered in ‘Bei Männern’ by the experienced Papageno of Markus Werba, making his house debut in the role although his mellifluous tone and natural stage presence are well known to ROH audiences.

Toby Spence’s Tamino was another ‘known quantity’ making his house role debut, and he has the heroic heft for the music as well as the tenderness needed. He cuts a regal stage figure, despite the even-more-bland-than-usual characterization imposed by the production. That ineffably touching moment of recognition – “Tamino mein… Pamina mein” was finely sung by both.

Anna Siminska’s Queen of the Night was a striking assumption from another house debutant; her first aria was a little uncertain at times but in ‘Der hölle Rache’ she was on fire, nailing most of those fiendish top Fs as though they presented no challenge at all. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Sarastro was also new to the house, and he presented a paternal figure with a fine basso profondo, complete with sonorous low D. Benjamin Bevan was an unusually youthful Speaker, but he gave the role the required grandeur and authority. Two of the ROH Jette Parker Young Artists made strong impressions as First and Second Armoured Man; brief roles, but Samuel Sakker and James Platt made the most of them – the phrase ‘ringing tone’ is often used of tenors, but in the case of Sakker it is actually justified.

Colin Judson’s Monostatos was as well characterized as you would expect from this outstanding actor, and the trios of Ladies and Boys were mostly well balanced. The First and Second Priests were luxury casting with Harry Nicoll and Donald Maxwell (whose Wozzeck has few equals). Rhian Lois sang brightly in her house debut as Papagena, but sadly her scenes seem to me to be misjudged – no fault of hers or indeed the previous singers of the role in this production, but Papagena is supposed to be just like Papageno, not a dead ringer for Vicky Pollard, and part of the delight in their scenes should be how she turns from an old crone into a delectable ‘little bird.’

The chorus, as ever, sang superbly whether in grandiose hymnal or joyful celebratory mode, and although the orchestra took some time to find its form under what at first seemed to be the rather sluggish baton of Cornelius Meister, it eventually sparkled in the ‘lighter’ music and provided the required nobility in the more solemn passages.

The production is a serious, intellectual consideration of the rational and spiritual, its iconography finely pointed up by the exquisite designs by John Mcfarlane and the poetic, beautifully judged lighting by Paule Constable. If you have not seen the production but you know Joseph Wright’s famous work ‘The Orrery’ you’ll feel familiar with the setting; one of the most evocative stage pictures I have seen centres around an orrery – a model of the solar system first made in 1700 – and it is beautifully echoed in the backdrop of the night sky and the constellations when the Queen appears. Ah, what rare bliss – consistent, meaningful, intellectually informed, relevant imagery on the operatic stage.

The luminous, golden glow which bathes the initiates, the fairy-tale ornate sleigh beds and most of all the giant eye looking down upon the victory of truth and vision, unite to form a satisfying and still revelatory whole. I suppose it’s in vain to hope that the ROH will hang on to this production, especially now the ENO has retired Nick Hytner‘s one, and revive it a few more times before Mozart’s great hymn to love and the triumph of the human spirit is subsumed into an evening set atop a dung heap, lit with what seem to be sparklers and requiring the singers to shunt rifles and don combats whilst they negotiate stratospheric coloratura.


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Die Zauberflöte @ Royal Opera House, London