The Magic Flute

At the end of a very busy week I was wondering if I’d have the energy to cope with a Friday night at the Opera, but last night’s performance of The Magic Flute by Welsh National Opera was definitely worth making the effort. It was a revival of a production first performed in 2005, sung in English to a very witty translation by Jeremy Sams of the original German libretto.

I have actually reviewed the Magic Flute before (at ENO) and have also written about my theory that it’s all about particle physics (here). I’ll just repeat here that this gloriously silly piece is one of my absolute favourite operas and I’ve now seen (I think) nine productions of it in various locations. This one was a lot of fun, well sung and imaginatively directed. I particularly enjoyed the references to surrealist art; the main set consisted of wooden doors embedded in a cloud-flecked blue sky, a clear reference to Magritte; and the monster that assails Tamino at the start was a  lobster, a symbol associated with many works by Salvador Dali although not usually such a large one as this!

The plot, such as it is, is as follows. A prince, Tamino, is rescued from a monster (a giant lobster) by three Ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. He then meets Papageno, a comical bird-catcher replet with feathery costume, nets and cages. The two are sent to find Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, whom they are told has been abducted and imprisoned by a chap called Sarastro. The unlikely pair are given a magic flute and a set of magic bells to help them. Guided by three boys they journey to Sarastro’s realm, where there lives a brotherhood of men ruled by wisdom. Tamino learns that Sarastro isn’t in fact the evildoer he has been portrayed and Sarastro convinces the dynamic duo to join the brotherhood by passing a series of trials. Papageno flunks, but succeeds in getting what he really wants, a girlfriend (Papagena). Tamino succeeds and is united with Pamina. Together they endure the final ordeals of fire and water and are united in love. The forces of light prevail over darkness, and they all live happily ever after.

Of course the plot doesn’t really make any sense by itself, but it’s not really supposed to – it’s full of Masonic symbolism and is rooted in a much older tradition of musical drama that provides context but which you don’t need to know about in order to enjoy the music. What is so very special about the Magic Flute however is that it is so unapologetically absurd that it somehow ends up seeming immensely profound. I’m reminded of the old proverb “If a fool will persist in his folly he may become wise”. I think it’s daft, but in the same way that life is daft and that’s why it’s so universally popular. As in his other great operas you also experience Mozart’s uncanny ability to produce moments of robust comedy bordering on the slapstick followed by moving expressions of the deepest emotion. Perfect examples of the former last night were provided by the hilarious scene in which Tamino’s magic flute charms a motley variety of animals, including a very tarty bird, and also the priceless moment when the magic bells turn away the evil Monostatos and his henchmen by making them dance off like ballerinas, which was a hoot. By contrast, Pamina’s solo aria in Act II where she thinks Tamino has spurned her, beautifully sung by Elizabeth Watts, was heartbreakingl in its sincerity.

I think all the principals were pretty good, although Tim Mirfin’s Sarastro was lacking in the gravitas that only a true basso profundo can supply. Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night negotiated the difficult coloratura passages and duly hit her top F, although it was little more than a squeak if truth be told. At times her voice sounded like it was coming into and going out of focus, but she had real stage presence and looked fabulous in a wonderful frock. Neal Davies was a genial Papageno, Elizabeth Watts an outstanding Pamina. A special mention must be made of the three boys (actually played by two groups: Guy Roberts/Rory Turnbull, Robert Field/Henry Payne, and Erwan Hughes/Josh Morgan; I don’t know which was which last night). These parts are often considered too demanding to be sung by boys so are frequently done by female singers. I thought the boys last night were absolutely wonderful, although I suspect they may have been miked as they produced unusual power.

All in all, an excellent night out. I think I could do with some of those magic bells at the Board of Studies on Monday morning…


6 Responses to “The Magic Flute”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I think Mozart was well aware that people expected some kind of a show at his lyricist Schikaneder’s Theater an der Wien. They certainly got it.

    The opera would have shocked Mozart’s fellow freemasons by putting so many of their closeted ideas on stage, but you don’t need to be a freemason to enjoy the opera. Some masonic directors have even played the connection up (I think there is a chapter in JS Curl’s book The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry about a set design for this opera). The Flute’s masonic ideas are explored in context in “Mozart: The Golden Years” by HC Robbins Landon, the fine scholar who turned to Mozart after he had said all he possibly could about Haydn.

    Jeremy Sams was in my year in Magdalene College, Cambridge. I wonder also if enfant terrible Tony Britten has done a translation of Schikaneder’s lyrics for the Flute? I saw Britten’s version of Don Giovanni once and it was hilarious – Donna Anna singing “I’ll have his balls on toast” of the Don. My only concern was that this jarred uneasily with the serious parts. The combination of levity and seriousness in Mozart/da Ponte’s operas has been criticised from the start, but this mix is part of our culture (Hamlet is similar, and nowadays we have the Hollywood ‘comedy thriller’). Britten made it so explicit as to hurt, however.


  2. I am delighted you enjoyed the performance. Regarding your comment about the boys, my son is one of the six boys sharing the performances, and I can assure you that they are not miked – it is all natural, and they have worked very hard all summer.

    • I wouldn’t have minded if they had been miked, but the fact that they weren’t deserves extra special plaudits. I thought they were great.

  3. maggie parry-jones Says:

    My goodness what a performance!! Yes,the influences of Magritte, Dali, Monty Python, (Tarty Ducks ,with red high heels)made for a marvellous lively production. I took my five and a half year old grandaughter and she enjoyed it immensly, although I must add that we had watched the Ingmar Bergman Swedish film version many times before tonight s opera, so she was aware of Queen of the night, Papageno etc. Wonderful indeed and yes the boys were great . A great first production to introduce young people to opera. Well done WNO ..Maggie

  4. how delightful to follow up an Azed link, and find my own name on the next page! I’m a fellow Azed , (and before that Ximenes (mac)Nut) as well as opera-mad. …. Thanks for charming blog and honourable mention

    Jeremy Sams

    • These days quite a few people I mention on here seem to be actually reading the blog. I should probably be more careful what I say in future, although in your case at least my comment was complimentary.

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