Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Magic Flute @ Coliseum, London

18, 20, 25, 27 March, 2, 6, 10, 16 April 2004

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

Who can forget Tom Randle’s bare, bronze torso with a snake wrapped round it when this production opened in 1988? For 2004 we have a very different – but equally personable – young Tamino in Toby Spence, and the good news that the production still looks fresh, stylish and impressive. The jagged rent in the stark, white curved wall reveals a succession of scenes behind – their vibrant colours mirrored in the brilliant floor to superb effect – and the movable slabs of carved hieroglyphics create the requisite atmosphere of “nature, wisdom and reason” for Sarastro’s temple.

What’s new is the sound in the sparkling new auditorium – now restored to its original 1904 colour scheme of Imperial purple, Italian red, cream and gold. Almost every word is audible, even from the back of the stage. Is this clever juggling with the acoustics of this notoriously difficult space? I have it on good authority no “enhancement” has been installed, but our party of regulars certainly noticed the difference.

Tha clarity of the words does produce one problem in that there are bits of The Magic Flute that many women really don’t want to dwell on – it’s a deeply misogynistic piece, alas. And if being reasonable and wise means one has to forgo the gorgeous midnight-blue frocks of the Queen of the Night’s Ladies for the boring beige of Sarastro’s people, I’m on the side of magic and superstition every time. But that’s a trivial point and I’ve probably just proved I’m far too shallow for the temple brethren.

The aforementioned Toby Spence not only looks good as Tamino, he sounds good too, with a virile and sure tenor recently displayed in the role of Ferdinand in the premiere of The Tempest at Covent Garden. What a pleasure to have a young home-grown tenor of this calibre. His Pamina is also a delight, and in fact the star of the show – Carolyn Sampson making her debut in this role, and indeed in any major role, according to the programme notes. it’s hard to believe because she is supremely assured. She looks lovely and sounds gorgeous – she has one of those soprano voices that is pure enough, despite quite a beat, to send a shiver down your spine.

Toby Stafford Allen is a highly creditable Papageno (and is due to sing the role at Glyndebourne) – a nice mixture of warmth and pathos, and a good comic actor. Papagena is the charming Sarah Tynan making her ENO debut. She also has a flair for the comedy of the part and her vivacity and sweet voice recalls the young Lesley Garrett.

Another young singer, Victoria Joyce, tackles the vicious role of the Queen of Night. The first aria is very scratchy at the top but by the second act things have improved markedly and she begins to impress – I imagine she will continue to settle during the run. Her three Ladies – Sarah-Jane Davies, Victoria Simmonds and Yvonne Howard – are a class act. Brindley Sherratt is a rather dour Sarastro, and Alasdair Elliott a larger-than-life cartoon baddie Monostatos.

This is more than just a solid revival of an excellent production – it’s thoroughly enjoyable, though Nicholas Kraemer’s conducting – of a rather small orchestra – is workmanlike rather than inspired.

Back to trivia, if you’ll forgive me – the good news on the restoration, apart from the aesthetics (and yes, they did dust the lions) – is that there are now eight ladies loos in the Upper Circle, not three. The bad news is that if you’re taller than 5’4″ you will struggle to sit in the front row of that level, as the legroom has been drastically reduced. Be warned.

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More on Toby Spence
The Rake’s Progress @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Idomeneo @ Garsington Opera, Wormsley
Eugene Onegin @ Coliseum, London
The Turn of the Screw @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes
Faust @ Coliseum, London