Any production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute of 1791 needs to address certain stylistic questions. Soon caught between the advocates of Italian and Romantic opera in nineteenth century Germany, bridging the gap between its surface magic and deeper symbolism has always been something of a challenge.
Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 production for the ENO takes a fairly straightforward approach to making sense of the ‘jumble of farce and sublimity’. He allows the music to speak for itself, bringing a necessary weight to proceedings, while the staging emphasises the opera’s moments of drama and comedy.
The set is a post-modern mix of large white vertical slabs and classical columns. Against this backdrop, Hytner generates colour by dropping red satin sheets from the ceiling to create Pamina’s bed chamber and having real doves swoop across the stage. The costumes – large feathery dresses and blue Bride of Frankenstein wigs – also stand out against the predominantly white set, though the relative anonymity of the backdrop does at times rob the piece of context.
This puts pressure on the cast to provide the clarity that is not always there in the staging. Fortunately the performances are superb; Shawn Mathey, as Tamino, has a clean, yet very ‘Romantic’ sound, while Elena Xanthoudakis, as Pamina, sings with an exceptionally rounded quality, particularly in ’Ach, ich fühl’s’. Duncan Rock – recently seen as the eponymous hero in a gay reworking of Don Giovanni staged at Heaven – is a good value Papageno, squeezing considerable humour out of this fickle, yet likeable, character, while also displaying a strong baritone voice. As the Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek exhibits the purest coloratura during her performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’, revelling in her character’s sensuality.
The merging of voices is also skilfully done, especially when the three Ladies (Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen) perform together, and when Papageno and Pamina huddle on the latter’s bed for ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe’. There is also sweet treble singing from the Three Spirits, Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh.
Nicolas Collon conducts with a vitality and precision that makes it difficult to believe that this really is his ENO debut, while Jeremy Sams’s English translation feels entirely in keeping with the wit and mood of Emanuel Schikaneder’s original text.
This is the last time that Hytner’s 24-year old production is to be staged at the Coliseum, and rumours abound that there is already a new one in the pipeline. This is an ENO classic and well worth experiencing before it is finally laid to rest, especially given the quality of the cast.