Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Magic Flute: Two stars shine in the Royal Opera’s revival of Mozart’s classic tale of Enlightenment conflict

16 December 2022

Does a new cast bring enough magic to Mozart’s opera?

The Magic Flute

Filipe Manu (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

David McVicar’s staging of Mozart’s hugely popular singspiel has been delighting Covent Garden audiences for almost 20 years, and it’s not hard to see why. Aided and abetted by John Macfarlane’s evocative designs, that chart the journey from darkness into light more effectively than in any other staging I’ve seen, McVicar effortlessly blends the comedic elements with the heroic. In a nutshell, it’s a production that still enchants despite having seen it more times than I care to remember. 

Barely a year has passed since its last double-cast revival, but with a roster of singers new to their roles at Covent Garden, another visit was in order. Overall, this time round the company had assembled a fine, if hardly vintage cast – one which certainly didn’t efface memories of last year’s. In order for this staging to cast its spell it needs a uniform set of singers in the principal roles, otherwise the finely-tuned balance between comedy and seriousness can go awry.

Filipe Manu certainly sculpted Mozart’s vocal lines with stylish élan, and was dramatically every inch the prince, but his well-schooled tenor was a couple of notches too small for Tamino in a house this size. Similarly, Anna Prohaska’s bleached tone made for a vocally anonymous Pamina, lacking the necessary creaminess the role requires – ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ failed to pull on the heartstrings as it should.

Brindley Sherratt returned as a benign, effortlessly sung Sarastro, bringing a wealth of experience and gravitas to the role, replete with sepulchral low notes. As his nemesis, Aigul Khismatullina’s Queen of the Night was nothing short of sensational. Not only was the pinpoint accuracy of her coloratura superlative, but she also cut a dramatically credible figure. Usually, coloratura sopranos feel more at home in one or other of the two fiendishly difficult arias, but Khismatullina was equally at home in both, dispatching them with apparent ease. I don’t think I’ve heard the role sung better – and that really is saying something.

“…it’s a production that still enchants despite having seen it more times than I care to remember”

The Magic Flute

Aigul Khismatullina in The Magic Flute (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

The other standout performance of the evening was Gyula Orendt’s heartwarming Papageno. Dexterously mixing slapstick comedy with pathos, he won over all hearts with his perfectly judged performance, and he sang gloriously throughout. This staging has been blessed with many fine interpreters of the role, and Orendt is certainly one of the best.

The remaining roles were cast from strength with some old, familiar faces – Harry Nicoll and Donald Maxwell returning as the indefatigable priests – and some new, with Brenton Ryan as a suitably villainous pantomime Monostatos. There was a mellifluous trio of Ladies, led by rising star soprano Alexandra Lowe, while Oliver Zwarg was a benevolent Speaker of the Temple.

Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev certainly had firm ideas of how this opera should sound – vibrato-less strings, embellishments a-plenty and clearly delineated musical lines – but on the first night some of his tempi caught the singers off guard, resulting in a lack of coordination between stage and pit. This was a shame, and surely something that can be rectified as the run progresses, as his approach certainly embodied 18th century practice, to which the orchestra responded wholeheartedly. 

• The Magic Flute is performed in German with English surtitles. Further details can be found here.

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The Magic Flute: Two stars shine in the Royal Opera’s revival of Mozart’s classic tale of Enlightenment conflict