Simon McBurney has returned to the English National Opera to direct the first revival of his production of Mozart’s last great opera, which McBurney originally staged at the Coliseum in 2013. When his name was announced, there was a tendency among more conservative critics to throw up their hands in horror and announce the death of opera as we know it. Partly this was because of some rather unguarded remarks from McBurney regarding his incomprehension of opera and of the alleged “frothiness” of Mozart, and partly because of his theatrical pedigree. He is co-founder of Complicite, which is experimental theater. Were Tamino and Papageno going to come on dressed to play Vladimir and Estragon from “Waiting for Godot”?
It’s true that first impressions suggest we’re not a million miles from Genet or Beckett. The only scenery in Michael Levine’s design is a tilted platform. Video and sound technicians go about their business at work stations to left and right of stage, in plain sight. The orchestra is raised. There’s plenty of good-natured slapstick: Tamino loses his trousers early on to the Three Ladies, and continues without them for most of the first act. Monostatos is a sleazy gangster (no blackface here). The Queen of the Night sings her famous aria from a wheelchair. Papageno and Papagena stage an audience invasion in the second half. All of this, though, is hardly enough to justify traditionalists listening with their eyes shut or booking a seat facing away from the stage.
The world, McBurney seems to be saying, is in a state of flux. The Queen of the Night stands for the Ancien Régime, while Sarastro and his reform movement are progress and Enlightenment. (Historically, the French Revolution was already two years old when the opera premiered in 1791). McBurney’s thesis works, up to a point, although I found the Shakespearean parallels (Sarastro = Prospero, Monastatos = Caliban, and so on) a bit wearisome. Nor am I sure that many audiences today would associate Freemasonry with wisdom and love, although some of Sarastro’s remarks to the effect that the times were out of joint certainly rang true.
There are loads of brilliant and inventive touches. I loved the idea of having the birds represented by flapping sheet music. Also the flautist joining Tamino on stage to play his flute (I speak as a flautist). At the very end, as music rises to its final crescendo, so too, for the last few bars, the entire orchestra gets to its feet, still playing their instruments. Wonderful.
Musically everything was fine, except that I did find Peter Coleman-Wright’s singing of Papageno a bit reedy in Act I; for his duet with Pamina, I could hardly hear him. To me, James Creswell’s first appearance as Sarastro also lacked gravitas, and without that Sarastro is nothing. Both improved considerably in the second act. Allan Clayton was excellent as Tamino. So too was Canadian coloratura Ambur Braid, here making her UK debut, although she’s certainly no stranger to the technically demanding role of Queen of the Night. She carried off all those high Fs with aplomb. (Of her two arias, am I the only person who actually prefers the one in the first act to the more celebrated “Der Hölle Rache”?) The standout for me, though was Lucy Crowe’s Pamina. I remember her in last year’s ENO production of Purcell’s “Indian Queen,” about which, otherwise, the less said the better. She has a beautiful singing voice of rare clarity and, though a mere slip of a girl, real stage presence. The orchestra excelled under the expert baton of ENO Music Director Mark Wigglesworth.
This production of “Magic Flute” certainly isn’t for all tastes, but judging from the hugely enthusiastic first night audience, it won’t be the first revival. Time flew. The whole thing was a treat. And maybe the fact that it worked so well is symptomatic of McBurney’s own “enlightenment” as to the power of music in general and of opera in particular.