The Royal Opera – David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte – Toby Spence, Janai Brugger, Markus Werba, Anna Siminska; conducted by Cornelius Meister

Die Zauberflöte, K620 – Singspiel in two Acts to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder [sung in German with English surtitles]

Tamino – Toby Spence
First Lady – Sinead Mulhern
Second Lady – Nadezhda Karyazina
Third Lady – Claudia Huckle
Papageno – Markus Werba
Queen of the Night – Anna Siminska
First Boy – Michael Clayton-Jolly
Second Boy – Matthew Price
Third Boy – Alessio d’Andrea
Pamina – Janai Brugger
Monostatos – Colin Judson
Speaker of the Temple –Benjamin Bevan
Sarastro – Georg Zeppenfeld
First Priest – Harry Nicoll
Second Priest – Donald Maxwell
Pagagena – Rhian Lois
First Man in Armour – Samuel Sakker
Second Man in Armour – James Platt

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Cornelius Meister

David McVicar – Director
Leah Hausman – Revival & Movement Director
John Macfarlane – Designs
Paule Constable – Lighting Design

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 February, 2015
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Die Zauberflöte, The Royal Opera, February 2015Photograph: ROH. Mark Douet 2015It 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.

Die Zauberflöte, The Royal Opera, February 2015Photograph: ROH. Mark Douet 2015As 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.

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