It is nearly twenty years since Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute first opened at the Coliseum, but Ian Rutherford’s current revival, we are assured, is its twelfth and final outing. The departure apparently has nothing to do with issues of popularity or relevance indeed it has been described by many as a classic more a case of stopping while the going’s good. With Kenneth Branagh’s much-hyped film adaptation looming on the horizon, it’s perhaps time the baton was passed.
Weird and, for the most part, wonderful, Hytner’s production acknowledges the narrative’s fairy-tale frivolity and Enlightenment ideals without attempting anything too eccentric or definitive. The staging is intelligent three pillars of Wisdom, Nature and Reason structure the set but also attractive: Papageno arrives with a cote of white doves, neon hieroglyphics provide a backdrop to Sarastro’s temple, and a cascade of red parachute silk denotes Pamina’s prison cell.
Having sung Tamino in 2005, Andrew Kennedy reprises the role with a confidence and style that confirms him as one of Britain’s most exciting young tenors. Whilst Tamino is tortured with fear and self-doubt, Kennedy remains rock solid.
He is well matched, physically and vocally, by Sarah-Jane Davies’ Pamina, who commands attention with her warmth and clarity of expression. Brindley Sherratt returns to the part of Sarastro and the Moorish’ Monostatos is appropriately refashioned by Stuart Kale as a pantomime villain, complete with thick eye make-up and a greasy comb-over.
Roderick Williams sings an impressive Papageno, here a jolly Yorkshireman with a weakness for wine and women, who peppers the spoken recitative with flipping ecks and bloody ells. The characterisation might seem rather hackneyed but it provides a necessary antidote to the sinister spiritualism and moralising tone of the second act; likewise the Three Ladies (Mairad Buicke, Madeleine Shaw and Antonia Sotgiu), who mince like preening peacocks, with matching frocks and feather dusters. Heather Buck makes her ENO debut as the Queen of Night and she fires an impressive staccato volley for the famous entrance aria, though her voice is otherwise a little shrill.
Martin Andr conducts a fresh and lively performance from the pit. Far from feeling outdated or redundant, this stalwart hit proves inspiring stuff in all respects. After a shaky start to the season with the new production of Carmen ENO will be thankful that their Magic Flute can still charm.