The Magic Flute at English National Opera

Helen Wallace enjoys Simon McBurney's production of Mozart's fantastical masterpiece

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English National Opera Mozart The Magic FlutePicture: ENO's The Magic Flute; Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie; (c) Robbie Jack

Hallelujah! Theatre director Simon McBurney – the man who for years 'wasn't in the least bit interested in opera' – has discovered Mozart. The results can be seen in a Magic Flute that glitters with enchantments while hitting you in the solar plexus.

Perhaps his best idea was to raise the orchestra up, involving the musicians themselves in the stage drama. The overture began in full house lights over audience chatter; a sense of festive informality coloured the whole evening. The message was clear: we’re all in this together - no, we really are. From the flautist brought on stage to play Papageno’s flute to the keyboardist helping out with the magic bells, to a Mr Stink-style Papageno (baritone Roland Wood on understated but comic form – pictured below)) shoving himself through the stalls, camera turned to the audience, barriers melted away. Young Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras, making his debut, drew a warm, responsive reading from the orchestra, his empathy with the singers occasionally leading to slackness in pace. A vast tilting stage and myriad clever projections drew us into underworlds, overworlds and worlds where the ground was literally giving way beneath their feet.  

The trademark Complicité (the theatre company founded by McBurney in 1983) mix of hand-made and high-tech found its groove in Mozart’s magic play, delighting rather than distracting. From the simple statements in chalk written on a black board ('#desparate' was one from Papageno) to the flock of A4 sheet-birds held by puppeteers, to the breathtaking trial by water in which the tender lovers, the ardent tenor Ben Johnson as Tamino and sympathetic soprano Devon Guthrie as Pamina, are suddenly swimming in mid-air, or the terrifying nest of slithering snakes that fill the stage at the start, each idea was both simple, unpredictable, and, crucially, communicated.

English National Opera Mozart The Magic FlutePicture: ENO's The Magic Flute; Roland Wood as Papageno; (c) Robbie Jack

McBurney has already received a drubbing for putting his Queen of the Night (a rather tight-voiced Cornelia Götz) in a wheel-chair, and yet what better way to express her diminishing power? Her ladies (mezzos Clare Presland, Rosie Aldridge and soprano Eleanor Dennis) start out as gleeful TA recruits and turn into predatory feathered keres (death-spirits). Similarly, the three spirits (no easy task to find three emaciated boys in London) were doddery old men, bent with the wisdom of ages, as they well might be.

Michael Levine’s lurching hung stage provided both the sense of real physical danger and an expressive metaphor for a world on the brink of cataclysmic change, as well as a clear distinction between the realm of the sinister queen and the yet more sinister but ‘enlightened’ court of the besuited Sarastro (a commanding but limited James Creswell), who appears to preside over a creepy cult.

For McBurney has tackled one of the biggest problems in the opera head-on: that neither the Queen of the Night nor Sarastro are trustworthy guardians; the mother attempting to hold Pamina back in the darkness of ignorance, the father figure presiding complacently over her abuse by Monostatos (a pantomime-style geezer, ill-sung by tenor Brian Galliford).

Whatever Tamino says about his search for wisdom, we know he’s driven by a more basic instinct: Pamina. It is not Sarastro who represents the future, but the union of Tamino and Pamina, both caught in a projection from above, lying in a pool of light, the cast’s arms forming rays around them. This radiant image was the indelible coup of the production, an inspired expression of the music’s joy.

I hope McBurney will remove the final words ‘Love, Wisdom’ from the chalk board: some things do not need spelling out.

The Magic Flute is at English National Opera until 7 December. For more details visit the ENO website

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