Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Magic Flute review – ENO revives Simon McBurney’s technically challenging staging of Mozart’s singspiel

28 February 2024

Technical wizardry abounds in English National Opera’s production of Mozart’s tale of enlightenment, but at times it threatened to swamp the singers.

The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Things move on in the world of opera, sometimes for the best, but not always. ENO’s previous staging of Mozart’s evergreen masterpiece served the company well for almost two decades – Nicolas Hytner’s charming, elegant take on the work was a delight from start to finish. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, and it never failed to beguile and move. But it was time for a change, and for its new production in 2013, the company turned to Complicité’s bold and daring director, Simon McBurney. His vision is the polar opposite of Hytner’s.

Dispensing with much of the Masonic visuals and rituals, he and his collaborators, Michael Levine (sets), Nicky Gillibrand (costumes), Jean Kalman (lighting) and Finn Ross (video), present an entirely different aesthetic – modern dress is the order of the day, creating a sterile boardroom culture for Sarastro and his followers, while Pamina and Tamino are costumed in training gear. Papageno looks as though he’s been sleeping rough, while a haggard Queen of the Knight, consigned to a wheelchair, warrants a big tick on the regietheater bingo card.

Does McBurney manage to coalesce these often disparate visuals into a coherent whole? Well, yes and no. It’s a frighteningly complex show, which stretches the company’s technical department to the limit, so it’s testament to their skill and professionalism that the first night went by without any glitches. On either side of the stage he positions a video (Ben Thompson) and foley (Ruth Sullivan) artist, who create visual and aural pictures in real time. Both excel, and add a real, welcome, sense of spontaneity to the performance. Nothing feels staid, and in the second act, which can drag, the forward propulsive sense of momentum only faltered once – Papageno’s business with a set of wine bottles went on for too long.

“…modern dress is the order of the day, creating a sterile boardroom culture…”

The Magic Flute

Norman Reinhardt & Sarah Tynan (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The downside to all this is that the Pamina and Tamino story arch felt submerged in the staging’s bells and whistles. Both Sarah Tynan and Norman Reinhardt had their work cut out to land their characters with the audience, which skewed the balance of the work. And whilst it’s always a pleasure to see these excellent musicians, raising the pit and making the orchestra an integral part of the action caused havoc with orchestral balance. From my seat in the Stalls (C10), facing the brass section, it meant that they were all I heard whenever they played – an excellent lesson in understanding Mozart’s orchestration, less so as a thoroughly satisfying musical experience.

ENO had assembled a generally strong group of singers, even if it had had to cast its net across the pond for three of the pivotal roles. The most successful of these imports was Rainelle Krause as a spitfire, full-toned Queen of the Night who dispatched the fiendishly difficult coloratura of both arias without batting an eyelid. John Relyea brought gravitas and gravelly tones to the role of Sarastro – his low notes sounding as though they were cut from granite – a mightily impressive performance. Tenor Norman Rheinhardt’s voice sounded a whisker too big for the role of Tamino, as at times he had trouble maneuvering around Mozart’s intricate vocal lines, often producing too much volume than was ideally required – more grace wouldn’t have gone amiss.

David Stout’s put-upon Papageno was a clear audience favourite – as is so often the case with this role – singing with ardour, pathos and impeccable diction, whilst throwing himself around the stage with abandon. Sarah Tynan’s role debut was another case for rejoicing, her pearly, limpid soprano shaping the melodic line filling out the role with glorious tone throughout, crowning her performance with an achingly beautiful ‘Ach ich fühl’s’. All the smaller roles were cast from strength, with the young, hugely-talented Ossian Huskinson standing out in particular in the dual roles of Second Priest/Second Armed Man – clearly he has a promising future.

Erina Yashima conducted a sprightly account of the score, eradicating most of its longueurs, most notably in the opening of the second act. She was rewarded with quicksilver playing from all sections of the orchestra, ensuring Mozart’s masterpiece came up as fresh as a daisy.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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The Magic Flute review – ENO revives Simon McBurney’s technically challenging staging of Mozart’s singspiel