First and foremost, English National Opera’s new production of The Magic Flute is an extra-ordinary theatrical event. Regular theatre goers might already have seen at least some of the technical devices employed here but the theatricality of the musical concept is likely to be unique to this production.
Stage director Simon McBurney starts off with raising the orchestra to almost stage level and using the orchestra pit as part of the stage. There is no rigid division between singers, orchestra players, sound technicians, actors and dancers. They occupy the same space; they are all integral part of the whole. Nevertheless, the crucial factor is music visually participating in the dramatic plot. Several times Katie Bedford, ENO’s principal flautist plays her orchestral solo part on stage, other times she plays standing up in the pit which is already raised. In Act 2, the Glockenspiel player – probably Soojeong Joo from ENO’s music staff although not named in the programme notes for the Glockenspiel – interacts with Papageno as part of the dramatic personage. McBurney’s concept of music as part of the stage action is so simple and so obvious – Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s bells feature in Schikaneder’s libretto; the flute of the title is essential to the plot – yet it is rarely manifested, especially in such a decisive manner.
At times McBurney keeps some sound going even during dialogues and presumed silences. His sound technician – on stage, where else? – conjures up sounds of all kinds (such as those of animals, fire, water, etc.) relevant to the plot at any given time. (It is not clear whether we see sound designer Gareth Fry or sound associate Pete Malkin on stage throughout, but he delivers his part with focus and musicality.) McBurney orchestrates the gaps which Mozart did not fill with music; hence he breaks down the division not only between orchestra and stage but also between music and verbal representation of key themes in the dramatic plot.
McBurney uses witty video images (by Finn Ross) – again projected visibly from the stage – although not always consistently. For instance, at the opening we see a chalk writing ‘Act 1’ for us but later we don’t get ‘Act 2’ displayed. Members of McBurney’s excellent Complicite company serve as birds by rattling sheets of white paper, but also as an entourage to the Three Ladies in attendance on the Queen of the Night. The bird imitation is witty and amusing but the Three Ladies’s entourage is crowded and confusing: Ladies and entourage look the same, so at times it is hard to tell who is who and what the difference is.
Having minimised division between music and plot, singers and orchestra players, stage and pit, McBurney also breaks down division between performers and the audience. Papageno and Papagena walk between the crowded rows of the stalls, as annoyingly at times latecomers do, but all the while singing their relevant music. At the same time, this action involving members of the audience is projected to a large screen showing it (together with conductor and part of the orchestra) to the entire audience. Surely The Magic Flute librettist/actor Schikaneder would have whole-heartedly approved such interaction with the audience.
McBurney sets the contrast between the world of the Queen of the Night and that of Sarastro not only as bad and good but also as old and new. However, his portrayal of the Queen of the Night as a disabled, old woman in a wheelchair is questionable on two grounds. It is true that the Queen must be of a certain age (with her daughter Pamina of marriageable age) but Mozart gives her highly energetic, vocally acrobatic musical lines. Arguably McBurney here misread Mozart’s music. The wheelchair – representing disability – in connection with bad, dark forces is insensitive the least but possible damaging to disabled people facing discrimination in far too many places. On the other hand, in my ENO orchestra-player days back almost thirty years ago, I used to listen to Sarastro declaring to Monostatos: ‘your soul is as dark as your skin’. Thankfully, this time that comment is ‘your soul is as dark as your desires’ and – in spite of Schikaneder libretto – Monostatos is a white-skinned gangster.
In spite of capable, in some cases even excellent singers, musically the performance was unconvincing. This might had to do with conductor Gergely Madaras’s choice of tempi which felt inappropriate to this pair of ears. On the other hand, with first-night nerves gone, tempi may alter during the run of the production. The musical highlight for me was Katie Bedford’s technically assured, highly sensitive and beautifully phrased flute playing. Of the singers Devon Guthrie (Pamina) gave the most comprehensive musical and dramatic portrayal but none of the singers could be faulted, although initially pitching was hit and miss for Ben Johnson (Tamino) and Cornelia Götz (Queen of the Night). On the other hand, Alessio D’Andrea, Finlay A’Court and Alex Karlsson (young boys, here with ET-like old heads, in the roles of the Three Spirits) were faultless in pitching as well as dramatic delivery. Compliments are also due to Roland Wood (Papageno), Steven Page (Speaker), James Creswell (Sarastro) and Mary Bevan (Papagena).
Neither the sparse, dark stage-design (Michael Levine) nor the deliberately non-attractive modern costumes (Nicky Gillibrand) could be described as pleasing to the eyes. But the theatrical experience as a whole was spell-binding. Don’t miss it.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: English National Opera