After having announced that the production would be retired after its last outing, English National Opera has brought back Nicholas Hytner's staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute for a thirteenth revival. Quite frankly, it looks so good and continues to work so well that there's no reason why it shouldn't still be with us in another ten years' time: there are so many canonic operas still lacking in ENO's repertoire that there is no point in throwing away a strong production like this.
As ever, what works about Hytner's staging (as revived by Ian Rutherford) is his marriage of the intellectual background of the piece with an unerring sense of theatre. He does not shy away from the opera's Enlightenment messages, whether they be about truth, wisdom or reason, yet he still manages to put on a great show. The bears, the live birds (a tribute to a common aspect of theatre in Mozart's day), the snake, the sliding walls and the vivid costumes ensure all-out entertainment from start to finish. It's never too fussy, though, indeed the production is rather clean and clear in its tableaux, thanks to Bob Crowley's elegant sets, well lit in Guy Aldridge's revival of Nick Chelton's original lighting designs.
The tensions of the opera are also sharply attended to. It helps to have a mostly youthful cast, but it's undoubtedly part of Hytner's conceit that these characters be living, breathing people rather than the clichéd members of a pantomime. The throbbing desire between the noble characters of Tamino and Pamina is a splendid foil for Papageno's more everyday concerns. Even more distinctively, the Queen of Night is a far more rounded character – a tormented woman, a concerned mother – than is sometimes the case. The cheekiness of the Three Ladies and Sarastro's geniality fill out a staging whose focus is on the complexities of humanity, and while it's all pretty familiar after twenty-one years, it's important to remember just how well it all works.
A splendid cast is another reason to attend. At its head, Sarah-Jane Davies returns to play Pamina for the third time and gives perhaps her most confident assumption of the role to date. Davies works hard to communicate Pamina's conflicts, which she's constantly trying to resolve, yet she always ensures that we remember her royal lineage. Added to her dramatic accomplishments, Davies' vocal prowess seems to grow all the time, and she mixes an ability to float high notes with ease with a firmness of tone and accurate intonation.
Robert Murray sang his first ENO Tamino at this performance, and thoroughly put his mark on the production. More than anyone else, perhaps, he exhibited a clarity of diction that helped one to focus on the words without straining to hear, while he is well suited to playing a virile prince and was vocally impressive, too.
Roderick Williams' portrayal of Papageno is a staple of this production by now, and he was no less captivating on this outing. He uses his agile baritone to good effect, while his comic timing in both the musical numbers and the spoken dialogue is exceptional.
Robert Lloyd was luxury casting as Sarastro, and he easily lived up to his promise: he dominated the scene of his first entrance, and was ideal as a character whose knowledge exceeds all others'.
Although all three of the Ladies were very good, there was no doubting that Kate Valentine was the most outstanding of the three: her beauty of tone, witty acting and clear diction suggest that she might be an excellent Pamina in the future, though Susanna Tudor-Thomas and Deborah Davison also deserve praise. Stuart Kale's Monostatos was suitably comic, but Graeme Danby's authoritative Speaker was in another league.
Erik Nielsen's conducting of the ENO orchestra was secure and solid, and if occasionally a bit more inspiration and contrast were called for, the consistent quality of the performance spoke for itself – and it's been a while since I've heard the chorus in such excellent voice.
If you've seen it before, there is still much to enjoy in Hytner's production, while newcomers are bound to be enchanted. Eight performances remain – don't miss it.
Photo Credits: Richard H Smith
Sarah-Jane Davies discusses playing Pamina in this production of The Magic Flute
Andrew Kennedy discusses the previous revival of ENO's The Magic Flute
Robert Lloyd discusses playing Sarastro in ENO's Magic Flute, and his career to date
Review of the previous revival of The Magic Flute at ENO
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