Simple Comedy: Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at the English National Opera

I often go into a performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte somewhat reluctantly, feeling that it's hard to get beyond the lighthearted music and the bizarre storyline to something with any meaning. There is nothing wrong with just having fun, of course, but it often feels to me that the strange mix of morality, unusual atmosphere, and conflict undermines the comedy of Flute while the comedy undermines its seriousness. It offers many opportunities for imaginative productions, and of those I've seen this one manages most effectively to create an atmosphere of lighthearted fun, making it enjoyable while eschewing attempts to make a point or interpret the opera's deep bizarreness.

General information & synopsis:

Satyagraha | Philip Glass

Director | Simon McBurney
Associate Director | Max Webster
Set Designer | Michael Levine
Costume Designer | Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer | Jean Kalman
Choreographer | Josie Daxter
Video Designer | Finn Ross
Sound Designer | Gareth Fry

Tamino | Ben Johnson
Papageno | Roland Wood
Pamina | Devon Guthrie
The Queen of the Night | Cornelia Götz
Sarastro | James Creswell
Three Ladies | Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland, & Rosie Aldrige
Monostatos | Brian Galliford
Three Spirits | Leo Blair, Jake Griffin, Joseph Outtrim
Speaker | Steven Page
First Priest/First Armed Man | Anthony Gregory
Second Priest/Second Armed Man | Robert Winslade Anderson
Papagena | Mary Bevan

Conductor | Gergely Madaras
Assistant Conductor | Andrew Smith
Concert Master | Martin Fitzpatrick
Orchestra and Chorus of, and actors for, the English National Opera
The set of this production is quite innovative, focusing on a square central platform connected at each corner to cables, allowing it to raise as a rake, a reversed rake, or to be suspended above the stage below it. This offers many different options for various points in the opera and is really quite an ingenious reimagination of the severe rake used in so many modern productions. A second major element of the show is the use of a chalkboard on which things are written, giving an aspect of childishness to everything (appropriate since often Flute is seen as a construct in the imagination of a child). 
As a whole, the production is abstract yet eclectic, never focusing on a specific location and certainly not in period dress, but not focusing on a specific abstract theme, either. There is a sense of odd quirkiness that fits Flute very well. Costuming, for instance, combines elements as diverse as the Queen of the Night in a wheelchair, what I've heard described, probably in an unfairly stereotypical fashion, as Balkans gang clothing (track warmups, etc.). Paper "airplanes" held by actors are the birds for Papageno, and later on the principals fly through the air in a true journey through the tests. 
Flute, despite being such an absurdist comedy, is an excellent canvas on which to make a point. Clever productions can go very deep because the material is so abstract already and has been accurately likened to an LSD trip. This one eschews such deep interpretation, which often sits at odds with the comedy. For instance, it is unclear what the meaning of the writing, emphasis on books as a projected backdrop, and skeletal spirit children is meant to be. I personally smiled a lot, which I think is great for a performance of Flute. This is just a straight up fun production of the opera that allows the music to do what it does and the actors to play the somewhat ridiculous characters created by Mozart and Schikaneder.

Leading the production as Tamino Ben Johnson offers a mixed performance. Vocally he sounds great beneath his upper break, with an unusually robust sound for Mozart. Above that break, however, the voice becomes a bit white and constricted; this is not generally a problem since Tamino rarely calls for such notes for any period of time, but it is definitely noticeable. Meanwhile, his acting, while quite passable, seems to support the other singers and play off them more than it stands on its own. It does support them very well, however, adding to every scene and making the piece come together.

Roland Wood's Papageno is hard to place. At the outset his voice seems almost unthinkably dark for Papageno. As the production continues, however, either the voice becomes lighter in timbre or the ear adjusts, because the sense of shock and kind of jarringness disappears. His range is quite excellent and the voice is consistent throughout, with one large romanticized melisma reaching up into Rossini and Verdi baritone range. Wood's acting, though, is excellent. His consistently perplexed but convivial and upbeat Papageno is both funny and also the epitome of what, personally, seems to me to "be" Papageno. His chemistry, not only with Papagena but also Pamina, Tamino, and even The Queen of the Night and Sarastro, molds perfectly to his archetypal relationship with each character. Particularly powerful, perhaps surprisingly, was his chemistry with Pamina, nowhere more apparent than in "Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen."
The voice of Pamina herself, sung by Devon Guthrie, drips with honeyed sweetness. The voice is so pretty that at times its even possible to wish for something with a bit more bite, but, after all, Pamina is a very sweet young character. Guthrie invests her with great pathos, as well, playing the tension between loyalties to mother, father figure, and lover with unusual facility. Her "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" plays the heartstrings, poignantly striking the exact feeling of despair at the thought of losing a lover. Guthrie's portrayal leaves the impression that she is a singer with great potential who will be interesting to hear in a variety of repertoire and roles.

Cornelia Götz, meanwhile, could not be more established in the role of The Queen of the Night, having sung the role almost 1000 times. Her singing is spot on and the acting is very secure, the hallmarks of a performer who has subsumed a role almost into their personality. Her acting is especially powerful as much of it occurred from a wheelchair. While her two show-stopping arias are tossed off with ease, she frequently invests the portrayal with a Romantic or even verismo style that simply does not seem to fit. I personally believe that Romanticism can have a place in Mozart if done well and at the right time, but even during "Der Hölle rache," an aria that could have verismo fervor, Mozart has taken care of that with precise, almost clipped music, which the extra additions undermine. Perhaps this is a decision beyond Götz's control in this production, but it distracts from an otherwise consummate performance.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the cosmic battle, James Creswell's Sarastro really grabs attention. His richly noble voice rings out with almost Wagnerian stentorianism in contrast with the rest of the cast. His tall figure and swept back hair combined with long, slimming costuming give him an air of righteousness and help to clarify the distinction, often unclear even by the end of the opera, that he is the righteous figure, not the Queen of the Night. Creswell's vocality, though, unerringly consistent throughout the performance, is what truly burns his portrayal in the mind and seems to increase the importance of Sarastro as a character, often somewhat forgotten amidst the flashier roles of Tamino, Pamina, the Queen of the Night, and the Papagenen.
The comprimario parts and the ensemble perform admirably, helping to bring together this lighthearted, imaginative production and make the show chug along throughout. Brian Galliford deserves special praise for his portrayal of Monostatos, which combines stereotypical gay traits with the lasciviousness of the character, creating an odd mix (and for those quick to offense, there was no hint suggesting gay folk are inclined to be rapists). Conductor Gergely Madaras leads the orchestra and ensemble well, bringing to life the instantly recognizable music of Die Zauberflöte, particularly remarkable in the overture. If the conducting is somewhat lost in the overall sweep of the production, it is only because that is exactly the way that Mozart's music plays into the theater of the opera. A great outing for the young conductor. 
Lastly, most of Simon McBurney's influence on this production can already be inferred from the rest of this review, but a few final words on him and the production. This production aims at exactly the kind of Magic Flute the canon can use right now: something that cuts to the core of the piece's comedy and does not attempt to turn it into a deep philosophical work. We need those philosophical works, too, but Flute has undergone enough of them for now. Sometimes it needs to just stand as a simple comedy. For whatever reason the production, despite its quite complicated set and solid clutch of performers, sometimes feels a bit amateurish. Though that may be the case, perhaps that sense of amateurishness stems simply from the fact that McBurney manages to capture the childish wonder so definitive of Die Zauberflöte.

(Yes, English National Opera, that's a dig at your practice of performing operas in translation!)


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