Friday, 14 September 2012

Die Zauberflöte, English National Opera, 13 September 2012

(sung in English as The Magic Flute)

Tamino – Shawn Mathey
Papageno – Duncan Rock
Queen of the Night – Kathryn Lewek
Monostatos – Adrian Thompson
Pamina – Elena Xanthoudakis
Speaker – Roland Wood
Sarastro – Robert Lloyd
Papagena – Rhian Lois
Two Priests, Two Armoured Men – Nathan Vale, Barnaby Rea
Three Ladies – Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young, Pamela Helen Stephen
Three Boys – Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, Thomas Fetherstonhaugh

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Ian Rutherford and James Bonas (revival directosr)
Bob Crowley (designs)
Nick Chelton, Ric Mountjoy (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Nicholas Collon (conductor)


Images: Alastair Muir
Three Ladies (Pamela Helen Stephen, Catherine Young, Elizabeth Llewellyn),
Papageno (Duncan Rock), Tamino (Shawn Mathey)

‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme. Maybe they are, maybe not; the same has been said before. It is, at any rate, difficult to think that they should not be. Quite why such reverence should be accorded what at best one might call a ‘straightforward’ production is beyond me. Some will doubtless applaud the lack of anything so strenuous as an idea or two, anti-intellectualism being so ingrained in certain quarters of this country’s commentariat. (Remember the outrage at the Royal Opera’s splendid Rusalka?) Some, ignorant of or simply uninterested in, the Rosicrucian mysteries of the work, will doubtless have been happy with a naïveté that sits at best awkwardly with our age, irreversibly ‘sentimental’ in Schiller’s sense. But surely even they would have found this revival tired, listless. Apparently some of them did not, however, given the raucous laughter issuing from around the theatre: any time a rhyming couplet appeared on the surtitles, some found it almost unbearably hilarious. Moreover, audience participation went beyond even the usual coughing, chattering, and opening of sweets. (A woman behind me must have made her way through a good quarter of the city’s stocks of Wine Gums). Someone even saw fit to disrupt the performance by shouting out a proposal of marriage to Papageno just at that saddest, pathos-ridden of moments when the music turns and he resolves to take his life. No matter though: it elicited a great deal of hilarity. And that of course is all that matters. Those who laughed at the priests’ dialogue may or may not have been aware how offended Mozart was at someone who did the same in the composer’s presence. Presumably the same people thought it ‘amusing’ to boo Adrian Thompson’s rather good Monostatos too. They seemed, however, a little hard of hearing, for their applause generally began long before the orchestra had concluded.

Jeremy Sams’s ‘English version’ doubtless egged them on in all their boorishness. I have asked before what is held to be wrong with Schikaneder. One can point to shortcomings, no doubt, though one should always bear in mind Goethe’s admiration. But the only good thing one can really say about this hodgepodge is that it is not nearly so bad as what Sams has inflicted upon The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It remains intensely pleased with itself, drawing attention to itself rather than shedding light upon the drama, and remains distant enough that ‘version’ is wisely substituted for ‘translation’. Yet, given the difficulties so many of the cast had with delivering the dialogue, it really might as well all have been in German. That would also have relieved us of that terrible clash between the text we know in our heads – especially for the text set to music – and that we hear on stage and/or see in the titles (the latter two not always being the same). Different accents are ‘amusingly’ employed; one might have thought it offensive to find a Welsh accent (Papagena) intrinsically funny, but apparently not.

Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis), Sarastro (Robert Lloyd), Tamino

Nicholas Collon’s conducting was disappointing. One often hears far worse in Mozart nowadays; yet, as so often, it was difficult not to long for great performances of the past (Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, et al.), or indeed of the present (Sir Colin Davis). ‘Lightness’ was for the most part all, a peculiar mannerism being the falling off into nothingness at the end of many numbers. Quite why one would wish to make this score, often but a stone’s throw, if that, from Beethoven, sound so inconsequential, is beyond me; at least it was not brutalised, as ‘period’ fanatics would wish. That said, the brass sounded as if they were natural; they may or may not have been, since modern instrumentalists are sometimes instructed perversely to ape the rasping manner of their forebears, and I could not see into the pit. At any rate, the result was unpleasant. A few numbers were taken far too quickly, but for the most part it was the lack of harmonic grounding that troubled rather than speeds as such; we were spared the ludicrous Mackerras triple-speed approach to ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s,’ one of the worst atrocities I have ever had the misfortune to hear inflicted upon Mozart. But as for the lily-gliding of introducing a glockenspiel part into the final chorus... Mozart is not Monteverdi; he does not need to be ‘realised’, and certainly not like that. A good number of appoggiaturas and other instances of ornamentation were introduced to the vocal lines, not least to those of the Three Ladies at the beginning. The fashionable practice does no especial harm, I suppose, but nor does it really accomplish anything beyond drawing mild attention to itself.

Papageno and Papagena (Rhian Lois)

Vocally there was more to enjoy, though the record was mixed. Elena Xanthoudakis made for an unusually rich-toned Pamina. Best of all was Duncan Rock’s Papageno, for the most part quite beautifully sung, though his dialogue veered confusingly between outright Australian and something less distinct. Kathryn Lewek had some difficulties with her intonation as the Queen of the Night, but then most singers do; more troubling was her tendency to slow down to cope with the coloratura. Shawn Mathey resorted to crooning more than once during his Portrait Aria and was throughout a somewhat underwhelming Tamino. Robert Lloyd’s voice is, sadly, not what it was; Sarastro’s first aria sounded very thin, though matters improved thereafter. There was luxury casting, however, when it came to the Three Ladies; Elizabeth Llewellyn is already a noted Countess, and it showed. The Three Boys were excellent too: three cheers to Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. Choral singing was a bit workmanlike but that may have been as much a matter of the conducting as anything else. One certainly had little sense of the kinship with Mozart’s other Masonic music.

The website and programme have the Two Armoured Men as the ‘Two Armed Men’, a strangely common yet baffling error: the German is perfectly clear. At least the production had it right, the men donning breastplates at the opening of that great chorale prelude. The Queen of the Night remains, for some reason, the ‘Queen of Night’.


Zwölftöner said...

Nick and I go back some way even if it has been a few years since I last him, so what you write is interesting. Another mutual friend of ours who is in much closer contact told me last year that the success of Aurora was down to the hiring of highly talented musicians who can play to a standard regardless of the direction, and that Nick's conducting was frightfully mediocre (for this person to be so critical I would never have expected). He is one of these types who has been desperate to conduct since childhood, though of course sheer ambition is never enough...

AMEN by the way to respect, or at the least some modicum of understanding, for 'Ach, ich fühl's'. Why anybody would deem it appropriate for a character to sing of all being lost as if the thought has driven them to bound across a meadow is quite beyond me.

Mark Berry said...

I couldn't agree more - and, more to the point, I cannot begin to understand how anyone could possibly think otherwise. I heard a similar thing from Mackerras - who seemed to be hired for by the Royal Opera for Mozart as a counterpoise to Colin Davis, to appease the monstrous regiments of authenticism - in 'Figaro'. The moment of wonder when Susanna emerged from the Countess's wardrobe was taken, at the very least, twice as fast as I had heard it taken by anyone else. Wonder there was none; it sounded as if a horse were cantering across a paddock. Wonderful in Janáček but for the most part quite dreadful, quite uncomprehending, in Mozart. Fashion victims, of course, loudly proclaimed otherwise, dismissing out of hand Davis and indeed everyone who had come before.

Still, the situation is not (yet) quite so bad as with Bach. What is now done routinely to the opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion - do these people ever so much as listen to the words, let alone the music? - is something for which I lack the vocabulary, or at least the printable vocabulary.

The Wagnerian said...

"...will doubtless have been happy with a naivete that sits at best awkwardly with our age..."

Alas, it is very rare for many opera directors to be willing to stage the Flute in any other manner. It is one of this century's greatest shames that the Flute is perceived as a "childrens" opera rather than the far more complex work that it is. Of course, this is not to denigrate opera productions for children - such thinks can be far more "intellectual" then many directors will allow.

By the way, do you really think "naivete" fits so unwell in our age? I find little to support such an argument - at least in "popular" (and much "elitist" or at least "bourgeoisie") culture.

Interesting review as always.

Mark Berry said...

You may be right. I suppose I was thinking of culture that might actually respond to and challeng our age rather than be cynically employed to pander. Even the latter, however, may turn out to give the appearance of naïveté rather than actually embody it; the Culture Industry is, apart from anything else, big business.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Jeremy Sams? Didn't he do the new translation ENO used for Phyllida Lloyd's Ring? I saw Die Walkuere in 2004 and could not imagine why they'd dropped the beautiful, literate, and singable Porter in favor of such an inferior and sometimes inaccurate translation.

Mark Berry said...

I have no idea why he is in favour. My memory is a little hazy, but I fear that he may well have been let loose on the Ring. I have just dug up what I wrote on Don Giovanni last season:

If, however, I were given to violent thoughts when it came to the production, they became positively – negatively? – terroristic when enduring Jeremy Sams’s translation. I do not think I have previously encountered a translation that so wilfully draws attention to itself and away both from libretto and score. At least bad, it is full of jarring colloquialisms and forced, cringe-worthy rhymes, with occasional, bizarre reversions to something more literal. (Perhaps they were intended to be ‘meaningful’, but it was difficult to discern any pattern.) Much, however, was wholesale reinvention. Leporello’s Catalogue Aria lost any indication of geography, let alone the correct numbers. Italy, France, and Spain were all gone, replaced by months of the year. Why? Was it solely to annoy? Some of us happen to consider Lorenzo Da Ponte a more than able librettist; might he not perhaps be accorded a little more respect than that? Somewhere the word ‘spreadsheet’ appeared too, which elicited widespread hilarity amongst a particularly noisy audience. (It was difficult for someone to walk on stage, however nonchalantly, without provoking hysterical guffaws from some.) At another point – I forget when, but am pretty sure it was somewhere during the first act – a ‘jacuzzi’ appeared in the text, the sole apparent reason being to enable another ‘hilarious’ rhyme, with ‘floozy’. Perhaps worst of all, and once again with no discernible justification, the plot was changed, so that instead of having encountered one of Leporello’s sweethearts, he had flirted with his manservant’s sister instead. These are but a few examples. Da Ponte deserved much better.