It is a pleasant surprise to see the first revival of English National Opera’s The Magic Flute from Complicite’s Simon McBurney, in a joint venture with De Nederlandse Opera and the International Festival of Lyric Art, work so well. This is because the original 2013 production revealed a number of ‘gimmicks’ that it was hard to imagine could ever carry the same element of humour when viewed for a second time. There may be a number of alterations to the staging as revived here by McBurney and Josie Daxter, but the main reason why the same ‘jokes’ can work again has much to do with the nature of the original piece.
Although immensely popular on its premiere in 1791, in nineteenth century Germany Mozart’s final opera still 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 a problem until this day. McBurney, however, succeeds in making sense of the ‘jumble of farce and sublimity’ by playing up the different aspects of the opera for all of their worth. Witnessing the same gestures for a second time works precisely because they do not stand in isolation as mere novelties, but rather serve to illustrate many points regarding the essential nature of the opera.
McBurney places unique emphasis on the notions of the visual and aural. The orchestra pit is raised so that the players are clearly visible, and characters frequently enter the area to retrieve the soloists who will play the magic flute and bells for them. A camera lies to one side, with images or writings that its operator (Robin Beer) creates being projected live onto the stage. On the other side stands a sound booth from which a technician (Ruth Sullivan) creates all of the additional sound effects including Papageno undoing a wrapper and accidentally dropping the sweet inside. Actors jump about the stage flapping sheet music to create birds, while Papageno carries a stepladder throughout the opera to enable him to reach different platforms and thus bring the whole notion of staging a drama to the fore.
If many actions bring out the comedy, however, Finn Ross’s video projections that portray the serpent and the journeys through fire and water are deadly serious in their accomplishment, while other effects prove highly disconcerting. The Queen of the Night becomes a wheelchair bound Miss Havisham-style hag, with the fact that she still carries a certain air of sensuous elegance hardly making her any less frightening. The three Child Spirits are also paradoxically and disturbingly portrayed as Gollum-like old men with sticks.
The musical output also makes this revival feel very different to the original production, with Mark Wigglesworth’s gleaming yet balanced conducting driving the score forwards in all of the right places. The cast is almost entirely new and as Tamino Allan Clayton produces a strong, focused and expansive sound, especially in ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ (although you won’t hear those words in Stephen Jeffreys’ successful tongue-in-cheek translation). His voice is also well matched to that of Lucy Crowe who as Pamina sings with searing beauty and fluidity. The pair also make the characters feel very engaging, and when Pamina sings ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ Tamino does not appear as some statuesque presence but genuinely looks as if he is being torn to pieces inside as he is forced to ‘shun’ her.
James Creswell, who reprises his role of Sarastro from 2013, has immense presence and brings his excellent bass to the fore in ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’. Ambur Braid makes an exceptional UK debut bringing the right combination of fear and allure to the Queen of the Night, and achieving a fine balance between clarity and nuance in her sound in ‘Der Hölle Rache’. Papageno is played a little too much as a character role because his arias still demand a lot vocally to show them at their best. Nevertheless, Peter Coleman-Wright provides a very engaging portrayal of the bird-catcher, making him quite a befuddled, sad-eyed figure in direct contrast to Roland Wood’s blustery, cheeky chancer of three years ago. John Graham-Hall is both comic and creepy as Monostatos, and Darren Jeffery stands out as the Speaker of the Temple. Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young and Rachael Lloyd are in fine form as the Three Ladies while the Child Sprits (Anton May, Yohan Rodas and Oscar Simms alternating with Jayden Tejuoso, Fabian Tindale Geere and Louis Lodder) delineate the vocal lines very well.
McBurney’s The Magic Flute may not constitute a vintage staging, but it is very warming and involving. The lack of clear boundaries between singers, actors, players and lighting and sound technicians does much to make the opera feel all-embracing, and the audience are as much in on these interactions as the performers. The Overture begins with the house lights up, cameras are cast over the stalls projecting live images of the spectators onto the stage, and Papageno sings ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ while clambering through the front row of the auditorium. This is an opera that can withstand such interventions, and it is enjoyable to experience a production which does so much to embrace what can really be achieved with the piece.