It is good to be reminded just how completely David McVicar’s 12-year-old production delivers the themes of Mozart’s Singspiel, The Magic Flute – low comedy and enchantment, Enlightenment and high morality, and love interests, all fit snugly together in a flow of hallucinogenic logic. It’s also a big show, and McVicar has used the whole stage without sacrificing the many moments of intimacy. The all-important darkness-to-light ritual suits the atmosphere of John Macfarlane’s massive architectural set – you could easily imagine it doubling up for Tosca. It’s a long way from the opera’s pantomime roots, yet it never compromises the clash of comedy and seriousness.
This revival (the sixth) was awash with debuts, but there was a strong feeling of well-prepared ensemble to what was happening. This rapport, though, wasn’t always evident between pit and stage. Cornelius Meister, conducting a classical-sized orchestra with period manners, created a few togetherness problems with some slack tempos and surprise rubato, and the string sound wasn’t the warmest. On the whole, though, he sustained momentum and was good at keeping the big vocal numbers on track.
Normally, I’m wary of auditorium incursions, but, during the Overture, the spheres of light amid the encircling gloom and Tamino clambering onto the stage to disappear, Alice in Wonderland-like, through a tiny aperture in the drop front curtain neatly set the fantasy ball rolling, and there are all sorts of visual and painterly references to Freemasonry and the growing glow of Enlightenment that, in Paule Constable’s ravishing lighting, expand the opera’s spiritual dimension immeasurably.
As well as the fluency of the acting, there was some terrific singing. Toby Spence, a veteran Tamino, was at last singing the role at Covent Garden, and here he was in heroic, lyrical full voice, eloquent in the passion of ‘Dies Bildnis’ and phrasing the music with effortless grace – he is the ideal truth-seeker. It helped that he was matched by Janai Brugger’s beautifully performed Pamina, which managed to embrace the role both as archetype and character. This American soprano seems to have it all – a warm, subtle presence, a gleaming, mobile voice full of colour and nuance, packed with emotion in a show-stopping ‘Ich fühl’s’, and a natural connection with the music. Together with Spence, they became the point of the opera.
I’d turn out for her any day, as I would for Markus Werba’s Papageno – he’s a gifted stand-up comic with a grounded, agile baritone of great character. He took over with unaffected, easy charm but he never upset the opera’s moral-comic balance. Georg Zeppenfeld used his lower register magnificently in Sarastro’s music and didn’t allow it to drag. He had good back-up in Benjamin Bevan’s expansive Speaker – his short scene with Tamino and the orrery was one of the evening’s visual coups – Donald Maxwell and Harry Nicoll were in fine voice as two grumpy Priests, and the Nosferatu-style, high-camp Monostatos went way over the top courtesy of Colin Judson.
The Three Ladies’ close harmony was too fluid and astringent for my taste – in contrast to the neatly sung and sharply directed Three Boys – but the Ladies’ and the Queen of the Night’s look is fabulously Gothic. Anna Siminska’s steely coloratura couldn’t help but impress in the black magic of the latter’s music, with pinging top notes and plenty of power. I still don’t get the point of presenting Papagena as a seedy hooker, but she was vividly sung by Rhian Lewis. As with The Royal Opera’s Figaro, McVicar’s Zauberflöte looks like a show that could run and run.
- Eight further performances until March 11
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk
- Recent opera reviews on Classical Source:
- Mona Lisa/American SO
- Enemies, A Love Story/Palm Beach Opera
- L’oracolo in Messenia/Barbican
- The Lady of the Lake/Met
- The Mastersingers of Nuremberg/ENO
- The Flying Dutchman/ROH
- Don Giovanni/Met
- Iolanta & Duke Bluebeard’s Castle/Met