Sunday 25 January 2009

Die Zauberflöte, English National Opera, 24 January 2009

The Coliseum, London

(sung in English as The Magic Flute)

Tamino – Robert Murray
Pamina – Sarah-Jane Davies
Papageno – Roderick Williams
Papagena – Amanda Forbes
Sarastro – Robert Lloyd
Queen of the Night – Emily Hindrichs
Speaker – Graeme Danby
Monostatos – Stuart Kale
First Lady – Kate Valentine
Second Lady – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Third Lady – Deborah Davison
Three Boys – Charlie Manton, Louis Watkins, Harry Manton
First Priest/First Armoured Man – Christopher Turner
Second Priest/Second Armoured Man – James Gower

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Ian Rutherford (revival director)
Bob Crowley (designer)
Nick Chelton and Guy Aldridge (lighting)

Chorus of English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of English National Opera
Erik Nielsen (conductor)

Last season’s twelfth revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 production had been billed as its last, yet here it is, back again, not merely by popular demand but, according to the company website, ‘due to overwhelming popular demand’. I am in no position to complain, since this is actually the first time that I have seen it. Having read about it over the years, the general critical consensus seems to have been: enjoyable but not profound, more West End than Masonic. That seems to me about right, for although there are certainly scenic representations of a recognisable Egyptian temple – Bob Crowley’s designs are impressive in a straightforward kind of way – there is little or, most likely, no hint of esotericism. A story and more specifically the story is told, which is good, especially for those who do not know the work inside out and back to front. (For those of us who flatter ourselves that we do, there was, however, a certain alienation to experience, about which more below.) However, surely one of the most remarkable aspects of The Magic Flute is its multiplicity of meanings, its mixing of genres, and the perfection with which this is accomplished. Having origins in a book of fairy tales – Wieland’s Dschinnistan – does not mean that the work should be reduced merely to being a fairy tale. To treat with other aspects or indeed to introduce – dread word for many... – some kind of Konzept, need not lessen the magic; done well, it should be heightened, as was immeasurably the case in Achim Freyer’s unforgettable circus Zauberflöte for the Salzburg Festival. Still, as I said, the production, replete with birds – very skilfully handled on stage - and bears (of the human variety, I should add) was enjoyable in its way. Whilst elements of the eighteenth century made their way onto the stage, this did not really go beyond the costumes. For a more thoroughgoing or inventive way of playing with audiences then and now, one could turn to Hytner’s own Xerxes for ENO, or to David McVicar’s Royal Opera House Magic Flute.

McVicar of course had, at least on the first outing of his production and on DVD, the incalculable advantage of the greatest living Mozart conductor, Sir Colin Davis, in the pit at Covent Garden. Making his ENO debut was Erik Nielsen, Kapellmeister at the Frankfurt Opera. I feared the worst when, as so often seems to be the case nowadays in Mozart operas, the overture was taken far too fast. However, things settled down and tempi, whilst by no means slow, were thereafter generally well judged. There was certainly none of the absurdity of Sir Charles Mackerras’s breackneck ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s’ in a revival of the Covent Garden production. Nor, let us give thanks, was there any crude ‘authenticism’ in the orchestral sound projection. Indeed, a few minor fluffs aside, the ENO orchestra was on good form, in particular the commendably warm strings, though they could have done with being greater in number, and a pair of bubbly bassoons. One could hardly expect so subliminal – and sublime – a connection with Mozart’s inner and outer world as that resulting from Sir Colin’s lifetime of experience with the work; yet, as a parallel to an enjoyable but far from searching production, this worked well enough. My greatest reservation was the lack of grandeur to the ceremonial aspects of the score; if not Freemasonry, then might we not at least hear a little Handel? Thus the finale to the first act sounded merely inconsequential, although that to the second was much improved. And I wish we could have heard the silences of the celebrated dreimalige Akkord given their Brucknerian due. At least the ill-considered quasi-double dotting of the Overture – I think it was on purpose yet, given the alternation here between rhythmic rigidity and slackness, it was difficult to tell – was not pursued.

The singing was generally of a high standard. Even if there was little in the way of the unforgettable, there was a nice sense of company interaction – assisted, I suspect, by Ian Rutherford’s able stage direction. I was very taken with Sarah-Jane Davies’s dignified, sweet-toned Pamina, every inch the princess. Robert Murray’s admirable Tamino exhibited similar qualities. Robert Lloyd gave us an eminently musical account of Sarastro’s part, less dark in tone than one often hears, yet with an enviable command of line. The Queen of the Night – or the ‘Queen of Night’, in the somewhat jarring usage of the translation – is a well-nigh impossible role, but Emily Hindrichs came close to nailing it, her intonation proving faultless until a considerable distance was into the Queen’s second act aria. This side of Diana Damrau – I am not sure that there is another side – one is unlikely to hear better. Stuart Kale acted well as Monostatos but the demands of the text, quickly delivered, sometimes led to a disjuncture between stage and pit. I was delighted to hear the Three Boys demonstrate that one does not need to go to Vienna or Tölz for their parts to be winningly taken. Their coaching, by assistant chorus master, Nicholas Chalmers, should be commended.

Roderick Williams’s Papageno brings me to my two connected final points. Williams acted and sang very well indeed. As often proves to be the case, Tamino was somewhat overshadowed: hardly surprising here, given the production’s lack of emphasis upon the serious aspects of the drama. But Williams above all was more than a little hamstrung by the ridiculous, cod-Northern accent he was compelled to assume for the sometimes over-long dialogue. (I presume that this was not his own idea and, as a Yorkshireman, think that I know the real thing when I hear it.) The Three Ladies, decently sung, were also allocated – somewhat patronisingly, I thought – different ‘regional’ accents when speaking. Although a few members of the audience, probably overlapping with those who applauded not only within the acts but sometimes within numbers, found this hilarious, I found it a source of considerable irritation. Yes, the work has its roots in Viennese popular theatre, but this is an all-too-easy attempt to play upon that, and since when has the Coronation Street-style charwoman of the production’s Papagena represented an equivalent to suburban Vienna? Moreover, Mozart reported from the first performances to Constanze that the expected numbers had been encored, ‘but what gives me most pleasure is the silent approval,’ indicating ‘how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed’. Playing for cheap laughs does not seem to have been what he had in mind. Edification need not preclude entertainment but it cannot be reduced thereto.

Jeremy Sams’s translation was rightly referred to as a ‘version’ in the programme. Some instances of undeniable wit were interspersed amongst passages that failed to capture an appropriate tone. Others seemed at best a paraphrase of Emanuel Schikaneder’s text, with more extreme examples, especially during the dialogue, appearing to be pure invention. Is Schikaneder’s text really that bad? Goethe it is not, though one should not forget Goethe’s unbounded admiration for the work, yet it performs its purpose very well and remains deeply ingrained upon so many consciousnesses. Indeed, I question the point of performing such a work in translation at all. One might, I suppose, claim a degree of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt in compelling an audience to hear a new ‘version’ – I was sometimes put in mind of those dreadful new ‘versions’ of the Bible that trendy vicars press upon congregations thirsting for the certainty of the King James Bible – but irritation such as this elicited does not seem an especially worthy outcome. Given that ENO now provides surtitles for all of its productions, is it not time to admit that, at least in such circumstances, opera in translation is an idea whose time has passed?