Mozart's The Magic Flute at ENO
Nicholas Hytner's production stands the test of time
If it wasn’t for the Madonna-inspired Queen of the Night’s dress, you’d never know Nicholas Hytner’s production of Mozart's The Magic Flute was pushing a quarter of a century. A hit when first presented in 1988, it lives as freshly as ever: lucid, elegant with an unforced comic charm.
A production in 2007 was billed as the last, but, as a critic wrote at the time – ‘how can they bear to let it go?’. They couldn’t. What are the magic ingredients? In locating it broadly in the 18th century, with proper bears, birds and trees Hytner protected it from changing fashions.
Bob Crowley’s enchanting designs have proved enduring: the subtle reflections produced by the mirrored stage are more effective than many of the high-tech projections we see today. Jeremy Sams’s translation is robustly witty, coloured this time by a broadly Aussie Papageno in baritone Duncan Rock, emitting a stream of ‘streuths’ and ‘Sheilas’. The transformation of the black Monostatos to an odious white predator has helped, but what makes it most contemporary is Hytner’s questioning of Sarastro’s ‘englightened’ morality; suggesting that class and sexism are the driving forces, he brings out the profound ambivalence of Pamina’s situation. It's this ambiguity which has given the production the flexibility to evolve.
What a shame, then, that in the production’s final run, not all members of the cast match its vitality. With heroic Taminos like Toby Spence and Robert Murray still in the memory, tenor Shawn Mathey had a lot to live up to, but proved leaden. His first aria was notably loud, sharp and strained, and, though he warmed up, he created a dramatic vacuum at the opera’s heart, failing to spark off Rock’s hugely likeable Papageno (good to see him take wing after a notable cameo as Donald in the recent Billy Budd).
The diminutive soprano Kathryn Lewek had real presence as the Queen of the Night, with precise top notes and a delicious pianissimo in her first aria. ENO can be justly proud of the talent they have nurtured in recent years: soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn was a fabulous, sensual First Lady while bass Barnaby Rea as Second Priest was warmly impressive. Young soprano Elena Xanthoudakis gave a poignant and truthful performance as Pamina and bass Robert Lloyd, once again, lent his sonorous authority and beautiful speaking voice to Sarastro.
Conductor Nicholas Collon, making his ENO debut, showed promise: there was real fizz in the overture, and a caressing tenderness to much of the phrasing, though as the night progressed, the singers got the better of him and tempi slowed and wavered.
Catch this classic production if you haven’t seen it, but perhaps wait until tenor Robert McPherson takes over as Tamino after 6 October…