Theatre Review – The Magic Flute, ENO

The Magic Flute 2016 (c) Robbie Jack

The Magic Flute
English National Opera
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Directed by Simon McBurney

Reviewer: Andy Millward

This is The Magic Flute (AKA die Zauberflöte) as Mozart could never possibly have envisaged it, one in which the words quoted on the ENO website seem to have been taken at face value.  Would we find love, light and wisdom?

Like Shakespeare, this is a work crying out for a vivid reimagining.  However, there is a downside to this temptation in that done badly you have all manner of flouncy additions that may or may not add value, but in the process lose the soul of the work.  At least the involvement of ENO musical director Mark Wrigglesworth is a guarantee that the integrity of Mozart’s music is sacrosanct and delivered with vivacity and spirit.

McBurney’s history certainly tells you this is no lightweight reinvention. Where ENO’s La Traviata was stripped back to a bare stage with many drapes, McBurney has thrown the kitchen sink at Magic Flute – though you wouldn’t know that at first sight.  In the movie Amadeus the staging of MF was pretty imaginative (see here and here), but here the stage is bare but for a tubular steel framework supporting a wooden platform.  Only later do you see it used for a wide variety of purposes: as a hill, a cliff ledge, a lighting rig, a conference table, a double-decker heaven-and-hell stage, a screen for projections, but then this is a production in which nothing is as it seems – quite appropriately for the material, you might think.

Our first sight of the screens, of which there are four in addition to the platform, comes before the action commences.  To stage right a crew member with a chalkboard, chalk and a duster provides an imaginative commentary to the overture, relayed on the front screen and culminating in a vision of rocky mountains as a virtual backdrop.  Throughout the show the front and rear screens are used to convey colourful and animations, pictures and projections.  For example, as we encounter the magical snake it slithers malevolently across the screens at fifty times life-size.  Done badly this could have made for a truly awful hotchpotch of images and dramatic action, but in practice it makes for an engaging and exhilarating spectacle by drawing the audience into its already fantasy world, often combining the two to transform the limitations of the expanded stage (the action continues into the audience, the orchestra pit and the prompt box at stage right.)

Nowhere is this better achieved than in the trials undertaken by Tamino on his journey, where a crackling fire burns all around he and Pamina one minute, and the next they are floating in a pool of virtual water.  Where Papageno contemplates suicide, the screen is filled with chalk arrows pointing every which way, resembling the three routes incorporated into van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Crows.  If the aim is to leave the audience gobsmacked, it succeeds admirably – though thankfully not all the effects are virtual.  The use of a team dressed in black to create Papageno’s birds, armed with just a sheet of paper apiece, is nothing short of miraculous.

The same level of invention has been applied to every aspect of the show.  Costumery is applied with flair and exuberance.  The Queen of the Night’s three ladies, like lamia thirsting for Tamino’s blood, entrance him with exotic plumery and a slow striptease into sexy semi-transparent black lace; Pagageno’s bright blue, pink and yellow, making him look (deliberately) like a bearded parrot, are matched by the pink and white finery of Papagena at the end; the three spirits, on the other hand, do a fine impression of Methuselah, at least one foot in the grave but still proffering advice.  Elsewhere, fine suits mingle among the long-haired Sarastro’s henchmen, contrasting with the Queen of the Night’s black and Pamina’s pure virginal white.  

Colourful it undeniably is, but what of the substance behind the gaudy clothes?  A word first on the translation, always a difficult compromise between the emotions of each character and the need for lines to scan.  Thankfully they do, though rhyming couplets are occasional rather than the norm.  However, this adaptation of Schikaneder’s libretto makes a virtue of bringing out the absurdist humour, notably the vulgar and lustful Monostatos and lovelorn Papageno, matched by comic mime as the bird man drinks from one bottle of wine and pees into another to get a perfect scale.  His forays into the audience, captured on screen for the benefit of we in the Upper Circle, are also good for a giggle.

So what of the acting and singing?  Worth saying from the start that Lucy Crow’s Pamina was truly outstanding.  Her rendition of the tragic Pamina’s Lament (as she misinterprets Tamino’s silence as rejection of her) was almost worth the price of admission on its own.  Tamino’s tenor, in the form of Allan Clayton, is more than competent, though he will have his work cut out keeping up with his better half.  I admired the bass of James Creswell as Sarastro, a commanding and authoritative figure who quells the rage all around him with a laid-back paternal benevolence.   The regular show-stopper in Magic Flute is the Queen of the Night’s Aria, which Ambur Braid delivers with gloriously evil theatricality.  However, it is hard to understand why the queen is very frail and wheelchair-bound, even if she scoots around when seriously affronted.  She is after all intended to be the all-powerful face of darkness as well as the mother of Pamina.

The fact that the libretto is relayed on the text screen above the proscenium arch is very welcome, though the lack of any such facility for spoken dialogue mean that  some of the best lines are missed.  

Love, light and wisdom?  Well, certainly a bit more than before this magical show, one that I hope revives the flagging fortunes of the ENO.  This is an enchanting and entertaining production, all the better since it will give even those who barely give opera an accessible and delightful introduction.  The fact that Magic Flute is, by definition, a fantasy singspiel makes all the difference, but try this approach with Wagner or Verdi and you’d have a total mess.