Wednesday 2 February 2011

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera, 1 February 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

(Images: Royal Opera/Mike Hogan)

Tamino – Joseph Kaiser
Pamina – Kate Royal
Papageno – Christopher Maltman
Papagena – Anna Devin
Queen of the Night – Jessica Pratt
Monostatos – Peter Hoare
Sarastro – Franz-Josef Selig
First Lady – Elisabeth Meister
Second Lady – Kai Rüütel
Third Lady – Gaynor Keeble
Speaker – Matthew Best
First Priest – Harry Nicoll
Second Priest – Donald Maxwell
First Armoured Man – Stephen Rooke
Second Armoured Man – Lukas Jakobski
First Boy – Jacob Ramsay-Patel
Second Boy – Harry Stanton
Third Boy – Harry Manton

David McVicar (director)
Lee Blakeley (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Give or take the odd reservation concerning a generally rather good production from David McVicar, I loved this Magic Flute the first time around: the best conducted I have ever had the privilege to hear. Preserved on DVD (see below for a link), it remains a joy of which I have often subsequently availed myself; I often use it for teaching purposes too. Sadly, joy was almost entirely absent from the present performance; it had its moments, but remained for the most part a surprisingly lacklustre affair.

Where McVicar’s direction had been typically lively, it was difficult to detect much meaningful direction at all in Lee Blakeley’s revival. John Macfarlane’s designs remain attractive but, in the absence of sharper direction, they seem increasingly cavernous, a setting awaiting something to happen. I have no fundamentalist desire to see the work in a theatre ‘of the right size’, far from it, but house and stage seemed in this context too large, something one could never have claimed when McVicar had been at the helm. I like the treatment of Papagena no more than I ever did: here she suggested a refugee from the Royal Opera’s forthcoming Anna Nicole, quite out of keeping with the general eighteenth-century setting and to no good reason that I could discern.

What surprised me most of all was Sir Colin Davis’s conducting. Where in 2003 – and on DVD – this had truly been the performance of a lifetime, now there was considerable uncertainty of direction. Too often, tempi sounded less flexible than unsettled and there was a truly alarming number of discrepancies between stage and pit, sometimes unrectified for quite some time. I am all for broad tempi – Klemperer and Böhm spring to mind immediately – but there needs to be a sense of vitality, in which respect Davis has so often provided a magisterial rebuke to those who equate liveliness with speed. Here, much of the first half of the second act sounded listless, the chorus ‘O Isis und Osiris’ resembling a dirge. There remained wonderful moments: I have never heard a more beautifully shaped ‘Ach ich fühl’s’; indeed, in general, sadness fared well. Moreover, the orchestra sounded beautiful on its own terms, though there was some weirdly prominent kettledrum playing. Yet, whilst the second halves, more or less, of both acts showed marked improvement upon their respective first halves, the lack of coherence, especially when one had heard Davis’s previous accomplishment, was disappointing. Perhaps it was just an off-day; let us hope so.

Vocal performances ranged from good to dreadful, the overall impression that of a rehearsal rather than a first night. (This leaves hope, of course, that matters will improve during the production’s run.) Christopher Maltman made a good, vocally-rounded Papageno, his on-stage athleticism a winning contrast to the general impression of lethargy. Yet even he did not seem on top form; of previous, very different Papagenos I have seen, Matthias Goerne, Simon Keenlyside, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann all left a stronger impression. Kate Royal impressed in the role of Pamina. Hers is not the sort of voice I instinctively ‘hear’ when I think of Pamina, but she sang and acted gracefully, and her diction was much improved upon the last time I heard her. Franz-Josef Selig was a good Sarastro, though the lack of stability to the performance as a whole did him no favours. Joseph Kaiser proved a disappointing Tamino, sometimes attaining considerable beauty of tone, but more often sounding inappropriately Italianate and too reliant upon a strangely emoting vibrato. Jessica Pratt’s Queen of the Night was unworthy of a major, or even a minor, house. Davis was clearly making efforts to accommodate her, by slowing down drastically, but to little avail. The succession of aspirates in her first aria is something I have never heard before; nor do I ever wish to hear it again. Otherwise, the Three Ladies were perhaps the best of the vocal bunch: I am glad they were so good, but there is something awry when they surpass almost everyone else. Things may pick up, I suppose, but if they do not, I cannot recommend strongly enough the extremely fine DVD.