fri 19/07/2024

The Magic Flute, English National Opera review - return of an enchanted evening | reviews, news & interviews

The Magic Flute, English National Opera review - return of an enchanted evening

The Magic Flute, English National Opera review - return of an enchanted evening

Simon McBurney's dark pantomime casts its spell again

double trouble: Sarah Tynan, David Stoutall images Manuel Harlan

Trials by fire and water pale in comparison with trials by Arts Council England. English National Opera’s long torment has lately involved redundancy notices issued mid-performance and the enforcement of a sub-standard contract for chorus and musicians.

Yet here they are, singing and playing their hearts out in an exhilarating reprise of a trusted old favourite: Simon McBurney’s production of The Magic Flute, first staged in 2013 and now on its fourth outing in the capable hands of revival director Rachael Hewer.

I know that McBurney’s busy, tricksy take on the mystical pantomime of Mozart’s sublime farewell to the stage did not win blanket approval first time round (not least from my colleague David Nice). Maybe Hewer has softened and lightened the ever-artful Complicité style of “total theatre”, and the vocal resources at her disposal have moved up a notch or two. Whatever the reason, the show, for all its self-conscious ingenuity, now mostly glows with charm, warmth and (when needed) depth. Any fair-minded extraterrestrial visitor from Mozart’s “sevenfold circle of the sun” would surely treat a political and managerial regime intent – as the current lot are – on wrecking this company as utterly deranged.

Yes, the floating, tilting platform whose gyrations dictate much of the cast’s movement does a bit too much conspicuous work for its own good. Yes, McBurney’s gloomy, almost monochrome, palette relentlessly rubs in the dystopian “darkness” of this world that imposes terrible afflictions on seekers after truth and love – although I found that the refusal of picturesque exoticism in Michael Levine’s sets and Jean Kalman’s lighting sometimes made the music’s ever-changing colours stand out even more boldly. Yes, those fluttering scores as the music literally takes wing become an overworked tic. Yes, the visible on-stage video and sound artists (Ben Thompson, Ruth Sullivan) make the old formalist point about “laying bare the device” a little too insistently. We soon get the idea about giant projected hands writing titles and stage directions, or drawing arrows to indicate characters: this is artistic and indeed human truth that comes from fiction, from invention.

Yet at moments such as the emergence of an animated elephant from a drawn sketch, the realisation that mere marks on paper have generated this enchantment can still be intensely moving (above, Norman Reinhardt pictured by Manuel Harlan). And the prominence of the orchestra, led by Rebecca Chan, in their raised pit works consistently well: Erina Yashima conducted with panache, drawing savoury flavours from brass and woods at key junctures. This heightened visibility also makes it natural for flautist Claire Wickes to step on stage for her (deftly executed) solos. These aren’t “alienation” effects in the student agitprop sense so much as an invitation to the audience to join in the casting of a collective spell. And, from the ribald byplay of the combat-clad Three Ladies (Carrie-Ann Williams, Amy Holyland, Stephanie Wake-Edwards, pictured below) as they debag the lost Tamino to Papageno’s later romps into the audience, the comedy is delivered with full-on unapologetic relish. In Mozart’s universe we can’t have spiritual visions without all-too-human slapstick.

None of which would matter much if the singing let the stagecraft down. A few slight wobbles aside, it never does. If Norman Reinhardt’s Tamino underlined feeling and gesture too heavily in “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd Schön” (or rather, the equivalent in Stephen Jeffreys’s nimble translation), he later found a tender nobility during his quest for Pamina and successive ordeals. Sarah Tynan’s Pamina has middleweight grace and elegance until, with her stricken “Ach! Ich fühls”, she released an expressive power that shifted her performance into a higher gear. You may quibble with McBurney’s conception of an infirm, sometimes wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night – humanity’s ancient matriarchy about to be ousted by Sarastro’s modern patriarchal order? – but Rainelle Krause (pictured below) absolutely aced the arias, formidably firm and sure at the top, burning with the dark radiance of a dying sun.

Peter Hoare’s creepy, gangster-ish Monostatos is vocally robust, and when the magic music bewitches his pink-clad henchmen into a little ring-dance, we almost enter Paddington 2 territory (not such a bad thing perhaps...). It’s hard for a bass-baritone on full power to stumble with Sarastro, but John Relyea’s charismatic voice – teak, smoke and bronze in one – made the halls of Isis and Osiris a truly compelling venue. McBurney/Hewer present him as a Xi Jinping figure directing his Central Committee (around a vast table) in a programme of top-down enlightenment: a new, all-male magic of reason and reading against the star-spangled enchantments guarded by the Queen and her female forces.

However, it’s David Stout’s Papageno who regularly threatens to run away with the evening. Although his spoken style has a few “Carry On...” touches, his rich, nuanced baritone periodically turns the cheeky chappie into a credible lovelorn pilgrim. His tender chemistry with Pamina makes “Bein Männern, Welche Liebe fühlen”, a piquant joy while his second-act comedy routines – on stage and in the audience – temper farcical silliness with proper pathos. They do, however, take up a shade too much time.

United at last with his Papagena (Alexandra Oomens), Stout has enough of the trickster-joker’s mischief-making prowess to mean that Sarastro’s solemnity never has the last word as the Great Leader promulgates his own authoritarian version of “wisdom and love”. Yet the fire-and-water ordeals imposed on Pamina and Tamino have a spectacular impact, and the crowded stage of the finale – with extra actors and a super-sized chorus – closes the show in well-marshalled majesty. On this uplifting evidence the ENO has the resilience to surmount its time of endless trials and look forward (let’s hope) to a new Age of Enlightenment.



Let me note, in the light of Boyd's comment about first time round, that though Alexandra Coghlan reviewed the revival conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, I went with her, and loved it: as day to night.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters