The Magic Flute

On Saturday 14th February I went to the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane to see ENO‘s revival of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

I’ve lost track of how many different productions I have seen of this strange and wonderful masterpiece, but this one was as good as any I can remember. It is sung in English rather than the original German (all productions by English National Opera are in English, in fact). Translating the libretto isn’t at all necessary for this work because the plot makes no sense whatsoever in whatever language the words happen to be sung or spoken. It’s all so weird it might as well be about particle physics.

Technically it’s not an opera, but a singspiel: the recitative – the bit in between the arias – is spoken rather than sung. It’s really more like a musical comedy in that sense, and was originally intended to be performed in a kind of burlesque style. That blends rather nicely with the Coliseum‘s own history: it only became an opera theatre relatively recently; before the Second World War it was  a Variety Theatre or  Music Hall. The Magic Flute also has many points of contact with the pantomime tradition, including the character of the  villainous Monostatos (Stuart Kale) who, at this performance, was roundly booed at his curtain call in authentic panto fashion. His retaliatory snarl was priceless.

I won’t even attempt to explain the plot, if you can call it that, because it’s completely daft. It’s daft, though, in a way that much of life is daft, and I think that’s the secret of its enduring popularity. Mozart’s music carries you along and constantly seems to be telling you not to take it all too seriously.

This production never gets bogged down  or, worse, stuck up its own backside as some I have seen. Instead it’s played straight to the gallery and none the worse it is for that.

The English text is very clever, including dextrous rhymes and plenty of puns, but I’d still have to say I prefer the original language because it fits so much better with the music. The Queen of the Night’s aria “Die Holle Racht” has so many harsh Germanic sounds in the original which just can’t be done in English with anything like the same effect.

I don’t think there are any really weak points in this production. The sets are simple but stylish and effective, and it all looks and sounds wonderful. Tamino (Robert Murray) is earnest and rather dull, but then I think he’s supposed to be. It might have been a mistake for him to go bare-chested in Act II though, as I don’t think man boobs were really what the audience wanted on St Valentine’s day. The comic momentum was kept on the boil by on the crazy birdcatcher Papageno (Roderick Williams). Pamina (Sarah-Jane Davis) was a little hesitant at first, and can’t act at all well, but sang her show-piece aria in the Second Act with real emotion. Robert Lloyd’s Sarastro added the right amount of gravitas without the pomposity the role sometimes generates; his bass is a lovely voice too, deep and warm with a rich texture to it. And then there’s the Queen of Night (Emily Hindrichs) who also seemed a little hesitant as she found her way through the difficult coloratura of the famous Act I aria that culminates in a nerve-jangling Top F, but was awesome in the second act when calling for the death of Sarastro. Her costume and hairstyle were more than a little reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. The three ladies had similar hairstyles, but without the side streaks and in a shocking blue. I couldn’t help thinking of Marge Simpson.

There were many funny moments, perhaps the best being when Papageno and Papagena fasten their safety belts before being hoisted into the rafters in a giant bird’s nest. Papageno even managed a reference to a Valentine.  I wonder if that was put in specially for Saturday?

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5 Responses to “The Magic Flute”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I prefer it in German too, because my German is not good enough to grasp all of the plot in real time – which plot you rightly describe as daft. Keep that left trouserleg firmly rolled down!
    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    I think the Queen of the Night is much better in German; you don’t really have to know what she’s singing to get the message. I imagine Papageno’s text is very much like 18th century music hall German, which must be interesting if you know the language well (which I don’t).

    One thing I did pick up about the background is that Sarastro is actually a version of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism being one of the most ancient religions. What that’s got to do with the Masons I don’t know, nor why Isis and Osiris crop up…

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Freemasonry is a “mystery religion” (though it denies it) which likes to claim that these are its spiritual antecedents. More likely it originated in a takeover by mystics of one or two guilds of “operative” (ie, stone)masons after the era of mediaeval cathedral building drew to a close.

    NB I am not now, and have never been…

    Anton

  4. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « The Magic Flute […]

  5. […] have actually reviewed the Magic Flute before (at ENO) and have also written about my theory that it’s all about particle physics (here). […]

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