(sung in English, as The Magic Flute)
Tamino – Allan ClaytonThree Ladies – Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young, Rachael Lloyd
Papageno – Peter Coleman-Wright
Queen of the Night – Ambur Braid
Monostatos – John Graham-Hall
Pamina – Lucy Crowe
Three Boys – Anton May, Yohan Rodas, Oscar Simms
Speaker – Darren Jeffery
Sarastro – James Creswell
Priests, Armoured Men – Rupert Charlesworth, Frederick Long
Papagena – Soraya Mafi
Simon McBurney (director)Josie Daxter (revival director, movement)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Jean Kalman, Mike Gunning (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Gareth Fry, Matthieu Maurice (sound design)
Whilst the Arts Council - until recently plaything to that cultural luminary, Big Brother’s Peter Bazalgette, friend and appointee of Jeremy Hunt – has been doing its best to destroy the English National Opera, ENO has fought back in the best way possible: in the theatre. I felt ambivalent about this production of The Magic Flute first time around; it was certainly an improvement upon itspredecessor, but other than that, I was somewhat lukewarm. At the time, I welcomed its emphasis upon theatricality and the workings of that theatricality, whilst wondering whether a little less might have been more. That I still feel; it is not clear to me what is contributed by the writing of ‘The Magic Flute’ on a screen during the Overture, save, alas, for permitting noisy sections of the audience to laugh uproariously. If they find that – and, it would seem, pretty much anything – so utterly hilarious and/or conducive to loud discussion, then I might suggest that they seek help; the rest of us certainly needed help at times in order to hear the performance.
Whether the rest had been toned down a little, I am not sure; maybe I was just feeling less curmudgeonly, in which case I owe Simon McBurney and Complicité something of an apology; I certainly enjoyed the production more than I had last time. The sound booths, in which we see and hear the making or an impression of making of sound ‘effects’ is very Complicité, of course, and I suspect that some opera-goers loved it because it was new to them. I still wish that something more were actually done with these aspects of the production, that there were more interrogation of the work and what it might mean; yet, by the same token, there is an openness to interpretation that should not necessarily be confused with non-interpretation. There was, I thought or at least felt, a stronger sense of magic this time; whether that were a product of the production’s touring in the meantime, or of greater responsivity on my part, I am genuinely not sure. Stephen Jeffreys's translation is exemplary; if one is going to perform the work in English, a witty yet serious approach such as this is unquestionably the way to go. It enables one to approach the heart of the work rather than shouting 'look at me!'
For me, however, the strongest reasons to enthuse were musical. Mark Wigglesworth led an excellent account of the score. No, of course it was not Colin Davis; but we do not need to hear unconvincing imitation of past glories. Wigglesworth’s tempi tended to be swifter, although not unreasonably so; crucially, there was no sense of harrying the score, of preventing it from breathing. There was no absurd rushing through ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, nor indeed through any of the most tender moments. Moreover, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus, fighting back again where it matters most strongly, were on excellent form throughout. Orchestral light and shade was present in abundance, even if I did not especially care for the use of natural trumpets. (That seems to be the latest fashion with modern orchestras, a fashion I confess to finding incomprehensible, when modern instruments are otherwise used.) The chorus, presently under threat from management cuts, showed incontrovertibly why it deserves our fullest support, its members as convincing individually as they were corporately.
Allan Clayton offered a fine vocal performance as Tamino, although I think the production might have made him a little more princely. Ardent and lyrical, he was a worthy successor to Ben Johnson. Lucy Crowe’s Pamina was as touching as one could hope for, musical and dramatic qualities as one; hers was a performance that would grace any stage. James Creswell’s Sarastro was unusually light of tone; there were times when I hankered after something darker, more traditionally Germanic, but on its own terms, this was an intelligent portrayal, with considerable stage presence. Ambur Braid may not have hit every note perfectly as the Queen of the Night – who does, at least on stage? – but hers was a committed, unusually human performance; I hope that we shall see and hear more from her. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Papageno confounded expectations. Here we had a highly convincing portrayal of a bird-catcher left on the shelf, the sadness arising from society’s contempt for the ageing as much as his usual predicament. (It seems a perfectly reasonable reappraisal in a work much preoccupied with age, which really had me thinking.) John Graham-Hall’s Cockney Monostatos showed what a truly versatile artist this is; it is only a few months ago that I saw him as Schoenberg’s Aron in Paris. All of the smaller roles were taken well, showing once again how crucial a sense of company is to performance; if only ENO’s management would watch and listen.