Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Spectacular Magic Flute at the ENO

ENO The Magic Flute - Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie  (c) Robbie Jack
Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie  (c) Robbie Jack
The spectacular opening of the Magic Flute at the ENO was a night not to be missed (7 November at the London Coliseum).

The orchestra, conducted by Gergely Madaras, was raised up almost to the level of the stage and indeed some of the action centred around the pit, the first few rows of audience (although this was projected onto the back screen of the stage so everyone could see). There were also two booths, one each side of the stage which were integral to Simon McBurney’s interpretation of Mozart’s classic 1791 opera.

On the left was a video set-up allowing the audience to see the operator interacting with the action on stage. This included real-time ‘cartoons’ drawn on a blackboard and projected onto screens across the stage, puppets, and manipulated backdrops including a giant bookcase. On the right was a more complex arrangement with both video and audio capabilities – and also became the venue for some of the comic asides in the plot.


Many things were not as they appeared. The snakes which surround Tamino (played by Ben Johnson) at the start are projected, but there was a real snake (and its handler) in one of the booths. The fluttering of the paper birds was ‘augmented’ by sound effects. The magic flute and bells were carried around by the heroes but handed to members of the orchestra to play. Papageno (a Northern accented Roland Wood) appeared to be playing the bells in the second half – but there is music even when he (purposely?) forgets to move his hands. Hidden in the programme notes is a reference to a comment Mozart made to his wife saying that the audience think that Papageno is playing the bells but that it is really someone just off stage. Our Pagageno’s ‘slip’ was maybe a historical nod to the composer.

ENO The Magic Flute - Mary Bevan and Roland Wood (c) Robbie Jack
Mary Bevan and Roland Wood (c) Robbie Jack
Papageno’s birds begin life sat in chairs, with music stands in front of them, along the sides of the orchestra pit. The sheet music becomes the birds, which the puppeteers magnificently flutter around the stage, forming an integral part of the look and feel of the opera.

I am quite happy for opera to be translated into English (as long as the singers can actually sing in English) and Stephen Jeffries‘s new translation was witty and relevant - not many people would be audacious enough to rhyme ‘noodle’ and ‘skedoodle’. #desperate. Overt Masonic overtones were gone, although this does leave the ‘good or evil’ debate a little unclear. One minute the smooth-voiced Sarastro (James Creswell) was the benevolent oppressor, the next he was having the grubbily lupine Monostatos’ (Brian Galliford) feet flogged for trying to rape Pamina (Devon Guthrie).

The witchcraft elements of the plot were also played down. Without magical intervention the love affair between Pamina and Tamino was somewhat implausible (dependent as it was on Tamino falling in love with a portrait) however each made the most of the drama in their roles, and the final reuniting was heartfelt.
Instead the Queen of the Night was shown descending into madness. By the time she (Cornelia Götz) sang her famous aria, asking her daughter to kill her Godfather, she was practically confined to wheelchair dressed in her nightie. In fact she splendidly sang the aria from the wheelchair which must have taken great skill. But at the end after her plans to confront Sarastro failed she was ambiguously left hanging about the stage like a lost lamb, neither brought into the fold nor excluded.

The three ladies dominated the opening numbers. Dressed in combat gear their harmonisation and playfulness were a joy. Poor put-upon Papageno, with a tatty looking melodica for a whistle, provided much of the comic scenes with aplomb. His retuning of the bottle orchestra, by drinking or filling (I’ll leave this to your imagination) the contents, was very funny, but his scenes with Papagena (Mary Bevan) seemed far too short.
There was so much to see, but none of it felt intrusive. Costuming was impeccable from the boardroom suits of Sarastros court to the over-hairy Monostatos. Reinterpreting the three boys as Dickensian spirits was a stroke of brilliance. The boys doddered about the stage dressed as skeletal old men, and provided a much needed guide though the disparate events.

The minimal staging also worked well. The single piece of scenery – a giant pallet which could be raised or lowered to become a hillside, a table, a shelter, was very effective when combined with the projected screens. Clever use of lighting enhanced the story, with starry skies, stormy seas and a golden dawn. Every prop had been thought about and executed in detail.

Opera is always about imagination and Simon McBurney’s imagination brought this old story to life.


Review by Hilary Glover

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