Text: Emanuel Schikaneder
Original director: Nicholas Hytner, revival directors James Bonas and Ian Rutherford
The warehouse in which English National Opera parks its costumes and sets between performances must be the size of Yorkshire. This production of ‘The Magic Flute’ was first directed and designed a quarter of a century ago – and they’re about to revive the Jonathan Miller ‘Mikado’ which is a similar 1987 vintage. So with two or three hundred costumes per production, 15 or so productions a year, 25 years … well, that’s an awful lot of codpieces and bustles to pile up. They must have ‘Febreze’ delivered by tanker.
That the statistics and logistics of set and costume storage were considered may give you a clue to the fact attention wandered slightly during the three hours and change of this revival of the “iconic“ Nicholas Hytner production. When a theatre calls something “classic” or “iconic” it’s often a euphemism for “outdated”. It isn’t quite outdated here, but there is a patina on this production which could do with a wipe down with a fresh directorial cloth and while the singing is mostly fine, revival directors Ian Rutherford and James Bonas could draw out some more life into the acting which is mostly not fine.
It was Mozart’s last great work, written in 1791 the year of his death and featured his best-mate Benedikt Schack as the princely hero Tamino and his sister-in-law as the Queen of the Night who has one of the best showing-off arias in the whole genre, and Mozart’s own affection for the piece and the performers seems to generate an added warmth in the melodic score.
We start with the princely hero being throttled by a risibly plastic snake, and rescued from it by the Queen of the Night’s attendants, a trio of ladies in bright blue Marge Simpson wigs but vocally beautiful, theirs is one of the best contributions – as is that of their boss, the Queen herself played with melodramatic movement but musical perfection by twentysomething American soprano Kathryn Lewek. Unlike many interpreters of the rôle, Lewek holds nothing back in the first act aria, but still surprised and delighted in the showpiece ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart” in Act 2.
Tamino, and his commoner sidekick Papageno share twin quests for the woman each will love, steered and in some cases steered off course by the Queen and by her rival Sarastro, high priest of some Masonic temple through whose rituals Tamino and Papageno must prove themselves worthy. It’s nonsensical, of course, and only a fairy story on which Mozart chose to hang the music, but this production plays to the pantomime elements, perhaps too closely in one instance because after a couple of scenes of joking, Duncan Rock’s Aussie Papageno tries to commit suicide because there’s no woman in his life, not even in the audience. Just as he puts the noose round his neck, a female voice in the stalls called out ‘Oh, okay then’ and almost threw him.
It’s usual, particularly at ENO, for working class characters to be given English regional accents – Papageno has often been heard as a Geordie – but Rock revels in his native Australian, and while it’s intermittently funny, it’s a bit unbalancing as is Rhian Lois’ insistently Welsh Papagena and Shawn Mathey’s boat-bobbingly mid-Atlantic Tamino.
The solid Egyptian stature of the Bob Crowley sets and the richness of the music conflict with the pantomimic recitative and this may be a less-than-satisfying final outing for what has been a mainstay of the ENO for almost the lifetime of much of the young cast.