Much has been written about the economic uncertainty plaguing English National Opera, headlined most recently by news of impending cuts to the ENO Chorus. Such behind the scenes issues could hardly have felt more distant during the opening performance of the first revival of Simon McBurney’s 2013 Magic Flute, a fanciful production rendered a company achievement through Mark Wigglesworth’s incisive conducting and the superb playing of his orchestra.

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Mozart’s opera is grounded in contradiction, delighting in parts equally populist and sublime. The cleverness in McBurney’s production is the way in which he embraces the former, breaking down the fourth wall between stage and audience and inviting the audience to delight in its theatrical magic. A Foley artist is visible in the wings to one side, creating sound effects to accompany the action on stage; another performer stands in the opposite wings, writing words and images on a chalk board that then become projected with a visual flourish onto screens on the main stage.

Though this device can be overly simplistic in practice—one wonders how necessary it was to have the title of the opera and the name of its composer written out during the overture, alongside a reminder of which act we were approaching—it also created moments of childlike wonder. Watching the simple curves being scrawled in chalk transform into vast hills when projected onto a screen at the back of the stage as the twisting coils of a gigantic snake, also projected around the stage, surrounded Tamino, made for arresting theatrical wizardry. Small touches of uncomplicated joy abounded, from the charming simplicity of members of the orchestra flapping the pages of their scores to evoke Papageno’s birds to the interaction between the cast and both members of the orchestra and the audience. The frequent reminders that we in the audience were witnessing the artifice of live theatre did not ruin the artistic illusion, but rather invited us to enjoy its creativity and share in its wonder.

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Such concepts would not work equally well in any work of opera, but for a piece that so blurs the boundaries of high and low culture, The Magic Flute is the perfect vehicle for the bold physicality and distinctive theatrical style of Complicite, Mr. McBurney’s theatre company. Together with set designer Michael Levine, they have created a production of innate musicality that delights in the technical magic of the stage.

Yet as imaginative as the staging is, the real achievement of the evening lay in its music. The production sees the orchestra pit raised to the level of the stalls, allowing the musicians to interact with the cast and bringing an altogether rawer and more immediate acoustic. It also drove home the consummate musicality of the evening, all the vim and pleasure of Mozart’s mercurial score evoked by Mr. Wigglesworth, who showed himself a master of this repertoire. He brought out the very best in the ENO Orchestra, his fleet tempi moving the evening along with constant energy and momentum. He dove straight into the overture with scarcely any warning that the performance was about to begin; the orchestra responded with technically assured, dynamic playing that swept from the bounding overture to the sublime choral scene that closes the work.

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The orchestra and conductor were not the only musical highlights. Together, British singers Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe made one of the best leading couples London has offered to The Magic Flute in some time, each bringing sincerity and tonal beauty to their role. Ms. Crowe was particularly impressive; her second act ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ was heartbreakingly beautiful, her tonal colouring limpid and bright.

Mr. Clayton’s Tamino was equally heartfelt. When the Three Ladies gave him the portrait of Pamina in Act 1, prompting him to fall inevitably in love with her at first glance, he sang a ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ of great lyricism, his tenor ardent and pleasing. His duet with Ms. Crowe was sung with beauty and tenderness; taken together, the two were entirely convincing as the moral heart of the performance.

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At the less serious end of the moral spectrum, Peter Coleman-Wright made a thoroughly entertaining Papageno. The decision to cast the part as so much older than Tamino strikes me as a curious one, and Mr. Coleman-Wright seemed too patrician to play entirely readily into the role of bumptious commoner. Yet he has a knack for comic timing and general air of affability that left him a clear audience favourite, particularly when he joined the orchestra to show off some impressively dexterous celeste playing in the second act. Soraya Mafi was a delightful Papagena, and she and Mr. Coleman-Wright brought much charm and lighthearted joy to their duet, ‘Pa-Pa-Pa’.

James Creswell returned to sing a booming and humane Sarastro, his richly hued bass another of the evening’s highlights. Mr. McBurney pays consideration to the layer of moral ambiguity in Sarastro; ready as he is to kidnap Pamina from her mother and hold her against her will, by dressing him and his brotherhood in dark corporate suits; indeed, the second act opens with Sarastro chairing a boardroom meeting as the fates of Tamino and Pamina are decided. If the effect was initially mildly sinister, Mr. McBurney wisely allows the redemptive humanity of Mozart’s music to shine through by the end as the path to enlightenment is offered and darkness dispelled.

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As the denizen of darkness, Canadian soprano Ambur Braid was a formidable Queen of the Night, her upper register impressively firm and all notes hit, if not always beautifully, in the merciless ‘Der Hölle Rache’. She brought genuine menace to the part, which was all the more of an achievement, given the production made her out to be a geriatric in a wheelchair, one of the rather sillier directorial touches. What she was denied in on-stage physicality, she certainly made up for in the notes of venom with which she imbued her exhortation to her daughter to murder Sarastro in cold blood.

Her Three Ladies were simply excellent, superbly sung by Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young, and Rachael Lloyd. The former two were ENO Harewood Artists, and their scenes together never failed to delight. John Graham-Hall made a dark and seedy Monostatos, his creepy presence felt more than usual as he leered from above the stage, lecherously spying on Pamina’s reunion with the Queen of the Night.

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One could quibble about the on stage darkness that engulfs much of the evening, blacks and greys the predominant visual cues in an opera that should dazzle with colour and spirit. The industrial set design worked with the visual projections, but did seem a little too dull after a while. The lack of aesthetic coherence could also gall—I was never quite sure why Tamino entered in a track suit, or why the Three Spirits were rendered as emaciated and skeletal old men.

But no matter. The blaze of imaginative wizardry brought to the trials faced by Tamino and Pamina, the surge of light that met the happy conclusion as the couples triumph in the face of ignorance and images of the sun and moon dance upon the stage’s backdrop—Mr. McBurney’s production left no uncertainty about the triumph of rational good over superstitious evil, which is as it should be. The performance closed with the sonorous refrains of the ENO Chorus, gloriously sung and every whit as jubilant as Mr. Wigglesworth’s orchestra. Both chorus and orchestra were cheered to the rafters, and rightly so.

In a humanizing touch, Sarastro extends a hand to the Queen of the Night in the final scene, inviting her to join the happy chorus of the enlightened. The words ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’ remain etched on the back screen as the curtain falls, fitting end to an evening so enjoyable and, ultimately, humane.

4 stars

John E. de Wald

(Photos : Robbie Jack)

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