As Nicholas Hytner's 1988 staging of the Magic Flute is dusted off for the final time at the London Coliseum, it's easy to see why it's remained an audience favourite for so long. It still manages to strike the balance between the sublime and the earthy that is so important for this opera, and although some of the creaky sets show their age a little, the production retains a remarkable freshness. In Jeremy Sams' translation, which is never afraid to betray the Singspiel's roots in the popular pantomimes of Mozart's time, we are allowed to enjoy the often unsophisticated humour of the piece, but never prevented from being swept along by Mozart's sublime score. Directed by Ian Rutherford, this revival boasts a cast of real quality. The men in particular are vocally outstanding, headed by Roderick Willliams' gloriously sung Papageno.
Under Martin André, the ENO orchestra took a little while to warm up, but after a slightly breathless performance of the overture, they played with clarity and bounce throughout. André chose consistently natural sounding tempi and he and his cast kept things moving, rarely allowing the audience a chance to break things up with their applause. From the moment the curtain rose to show him wrestling the serpent, it was clear that Andrew Kennedy's Tamino is every inch the prince with a noble yet relaxed demeanour. Kennedy, as he's demonstrated many times before, is also a stylish Mozartian and although he seemed to hold back a little at the top and distorted several of his vowels, he sang throughout the evening with easy authority. The three ladies who come to his rescue, Mairéad Buicke, Madeleine Shaw and Antonia Sotgiu, were well acted and sung, even if they didn't always blend seamlessly as a trio. It is a feature of Sams' translation that it emphasises the ladies' lust for Tamino, a combined characteristic which they all acted with relish.
Vocal honours were shared between Roderick Williams' Papageno, and Sarah-Jane Davies' Pamina. Williams was vocally impeccable throughout: his smooth, easy baritone a constant pleasure. Although he didn't seem totally at home with the acting - all done in a broad Yorkshire accent - his final scene, leading from his suicidal thoughts (cut short by a trio of boys who had sung and acted extremely well throughout) into the duet with Susanna Andersson's bright and perky Papagena, was moving and life-affirming by turns.
Probably the evening's highlight, though, was Davies' rendition of Pamina's 'Ach! Ich fühl's'. She'd been impressive enough up up to that point but nothing prepared the audience for this achingly beautiful and vocally impeccable rendition of her aria, with a wonderful floated top G in the penultimate phrase.
Making her ENO debut as the Queen of the Night, Heather Buck cut an imposing figure on stage, with her slender physique and big dramatic gestures. Although she hit several of her top notes impressively (apart from the top F in her first aria), a lot of the build up to them was rather approximate, and she could be shrill at times. How much of it was down to nerves will become clear as the run progresses.
Matthew Rose was a properly imposing Speaker – luxury casting for this small but very important role – and Brindley Sherratt, in his third consecutive appearance as Sarastro in the production, employed his smooth, genuine bass to solemn effect. Stuart Kale put in a good comic turn as Monostatos who, wisely freed of any racial affiliations, was played as a rather unthreatening pantomime villain.
Throughout the production reminded us why it's been afforded 'classic' status. The enlightenment virtues central to Tamino's education are prominent but never emphasised, the tale's Egyptian provenance is hinted at with hieroglyphics incorporated into the sets, the comedic elements are genuinely funny and although never far from pantomime (the dancing bears always hit the spot), manage not to degenerate into cheap laughs or camp. One could complain that the production has very little new to say about the opera itself but when the performance has so much to recommend it musically, there's not much wrong with being given the opportunity to hear and see the piece speak for itself. Avant-garde or cutting edge it most definitely isn't, but for those after a funny, uplifting and straightforward way to enjoy Mozart's masterpiece, it's worth trying to catch this production one last time.
By Hugo Shirley