Given the many excellent qualities of Welsh National Opera's current touring production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, one has to wonder why it was shunned by all but The Guardian in the national press. Opera in the regions – if the national company of Wales really deserves such a demeaning title – has no less to offer than Covent Garden and ENO: if the budgets are much smaller and the theatres less glamorous, a far stronger sense of ensemble and the dedication of local artists can lead to just as entertaining an evening in the theatre as you'd get for three times the price in London.
So it is with this Flute, which is a lot more absorbing than the Royal Opera's most recent revival of the same work earlier this year, as far as I'm concerned. One of the main reasons is that Dominic Cooke's production, here revived by Benjamin Davis, gets much closer to the heart of the work than David McVicar's glossier but overheavy ROH production. Julian Crouch's sets are inspired by the surrealist paintings of Magritte and the whole thing has a Dali-esque bizarreness to it. But it's brilliantly simple. The main set consists of a single room with nine doors to it – three per wall – and cloudscape wallpaper covering the sides. This space is perfect for The Magic Flute because is can be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time; it's a dream world which, with the help of lighting effects, allows the feeling of both an interior and an exterior. The back wall lifts up to reveal a starry sky for the advent of the Queen of the Night, and Pamina's bed is likewise wheeled in from the back, but on the whole the feeling that this room, with its many exits and entrances, is the centre of gravity for the drama makes it a place of tension, rather than constricting the potential of the staging.
Sarastro's men are dressed in orange suits and bowler hats – the Magritte influence – and poke their heads through trap doors in the stage floor; the effect is suitably sinister. The traps later open to reveal the fire and water for the trials scene, and for the finale the men all carry umbrellas (a bit like something out of The Avengers) which they raise as Tamino and Pamina cross the stage having been ‘Enlightened'. The Three Boys' flying machine, the charming animal costumes (like all the costumes, brilliantly designed by Kevin Pollard), the hilarious lobster (replacing the serpent in the opening scene), the portrayal of the Three Ladies as Victorian maids (until they raise their skirts to reveal pink petticoats in an attempt to seduce Tamino) – in fact everything about this production is so coherent and meaningful in relation to the text, embracing the piece's hybrid Singspiel genre, that I can't really imagine the piece being more convincingly staged outside one of the world's big opera houses. Jeremy Sams' translation is elegant and entertaining, and it really helps the audience to engage with the piece to perform it in English.
The cast varied in quality at this performance, but it was noticeable that many of the smaller roles were very well taken. Rebecca Evans was luxury casting as Pamina and by far and away the most accomplished and polished singer and actress on the stage. Evans' Pamina is no mere innocent young girl; rather, she plays a very active part in proceedings and ensures that where emphases occur in the music, they have a counterpart in her physical gestures. She provided all the vocal highlights of the evening: an exceptionally expressive performance of the famous aria, scaling down the dynamics to an absolute minimum towards the end yet still pitch-perfect and projecting to the back row of the audience, vividly portraying Pamina's heartbreak; a wonderfully full-toned rendition of the quartet with the Three Boys in Act II; and, perhaps the highlight of the evening, a touching performance of the duet with Papageno, the taxing arpeggiated lines at the end dispatched with ease.
Evans' triumph was complemented by Neal Davies' excellent portrayal of Papageno. An audience favourite, Davies grew in stature as the night went on, and he trod the line between comedy and depicting the human emotions of the character very neatly. The performances of the two arias and the Papageno-Papagena duet (with Claire Hampton an above-average, eye-catching Papagena) demonstrated Davies' clear diction and control of line, while his delivery of the spoken dialogue was the strongest in the cast.
Sadly, Russell Thomas was the weak link as Tamino; I wondered from his nervy performance (with a couple of early entries in his Act II numbers and a tendency to force at the top) whether he was ill, because at its best his voice was very attractive. Laure Meloy was a very credible Queen of Night: I've rarely seen the character depicted with such an emphasis on her as a mother before, nor as a ‘holy' queen (as the Three Ladies and Monostatos refer to her in their final scene). Meloy hit most of the high notes in the coloratura passages of the two arias, with only a couple of fluffs, but what impressed was the control lower down, making this a rounded interpretation. David Soar grew in vocal stature as the performance progressed, but his Sarastro was always authoritative in demeanour.
The Three Ladies were an exceptional team – far stronger than those fielded by the Royal Opera in January. Camilla Roberts, Anne-Marie Gibbons and Joanne Thomas have such a natural rapport that the show got off to a very strong start at this performance, and they are vocally well matched. The Three Boys, on the other hand, were extremely disappointing. David Stout was brilliant as the Speaker, and on the basis of his singing as the First Armed Man, I thought that Philip Lloyd Holtam's beautiful, natural tenor would have been better suited to the role of Tamino than Thomas was at this showing.
Anthony Negus led a sensitively paced reading with a feel for both the light textures and the warm tinta of the score; brass and flute solos from the WNO orchestra were exceptional, the WNO Chorus proved once again why Wales is known as the land of song.
Not everything is perfect in this revival, but you could go a long way to see a more heart-warming Magic Flute.
WNO's The Magic Flute continues to Milton Keynes, Southampton, Bristol, Plymouth and Swansea.