Friday, 14 September 2012

ENO Magic Flute


ENO, The Magic Flute, Shawn Mathey, Elena Xanthoudakis  (c) Alastair Muir
Shawn Mathey, Elena Xanthoudakis
(c) Alastair Muir
Is it really 25 years? English National Opera have revived Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 production of The Magic Flute for one last time, to celebrate the production’s 25th anniversary. My first encounter with The Magic Flute in a professional production was ENO on tour in 1976 in a production by Anthony Besch, which was itself relatively long lived. For years after its opening, Nicholas Hytner’s production remained in my eyes ‘the new production’. For their revival this time, (the 14th revival), ENO went for a cast which mixed innocence and experience, led by conductor Nicholas Collon making his ENO debut. We saw the opening night on Thursday 13 September 2012.

Experience was represented by Robert Lloyd and Adrian Thompson returning to the production as Sarastro and Monostatos respectively. Now in his early 70’s Lloyd’s voice has lost something of its evenness and sheen, and he was not necessarily one’s beau ideal of what Sarastro should sound like. But he cut a strong figure on stage, and brought experience and consummate stage mastery to the role. He was nobly in charge without seeming to do anything, gently gracious where necessary and also firm of resolve; the complete aristocrat. The voice may not be quite what it once was, but, oh boy, does it still go all the way down. Sarastro’s famous low notes were all present and beautifully resonant. His diction was also superb, an object lesson in masterly stage-craft.

Thompson was almost as impressive, though a shade careful with his voice but expressive and nicely evil in a pantomime way without quite relieving us of the anxiety that this bloke was for real.

Elena Xanthoudakis made a glowing Pamina. Slight of figure, she has a lovely lyric voice, with a strong edge to it and a feisty manner. This came out particularly in her more misogynistic moments. She was playfully pert in her duet with Duncan Rock’s Papageno, but in her Act 2 aria she sang with a beautiful line and a powerful sense of pain. All in all, a radiant performance.

American tenor Shawn Mathey cut a robustly attractive figure as Tamino. His lyric tenor voice has quite a heft to it, which made me wonder how long before he moves into heavier repertoire. He seemed to favour expressiveness over line, which sometimes made for unevenness, but his first aria was deeply felt. However in both stage and musical performance there was a degree of stiffness; he has infinitely more possibility and no doubt will display this as he relaxes into the run.

ENO, The Magic Flute, Duncan Rock, Rhian Lois (c) Alastair_Muir
Duncan Rock, Rhian Lois (c) Alistair Muir
Duncan Rock’s Papageno was a total delight. Rock is an ENO Harewood Artist. His Papgeno was beautifully sung with a richly smooth voice which delivered much and gave promise of much more to come. He delivered the dialogue in his native Australian accent and created a charmingly cheeky-chappie sort of bloke. He needs to learn to talk to the audience more. To a certain extent, this production impedes this, but all the finest Papagenos that I have seen have chatted to the audience and developed a rapport with them.

But that is a relatively small thing. Rock showed that both musically and dramatically he can take role like Papgeno in a big theatre like the Coliseum and make it work, make us laugh and move us.

ENO Harewood Artists Rhian Lois was a delightful foil as a Welsh accented Papagena.

Making her ENO debut, Kathryn Lewek was an impressive Queen of the Night. She has a voice which goes all the way up, and sang the coloratura with freedom and abandon. More than that, she had the ability to give the notes the required heft; this Queen of the Night was no canary but a rather fearsome woman. Tonally her voice had a nice brilliance with a slightly hard edge which entirely suited this character.

The three Ladies were Elizabeth Llewellyn, who recent sang a fine Countess at ENO, Pamela Helen Stephen and Catherine Young (another ENO Harewood Artist). They made a fine trio, contrasted but balance, each with just the right amount of personality.

Roland Wood was a notable Speaker, he will be getting more exposure later this year with the title role in Vaughan Williams The Pilgrims Progress. Nathan Vale and Barnaby Read were the Priests and the Armed Men; both stylish and apposite, I look forward to hearing more of them here.

The three boys, Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh were a complete delight. It is always tricky casting boy trebles in these roles, but these three made a balanced musical trio, singing intelligently and moving around the stage as if they had been born there.

Nicholas Hytner’s production, revived by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas, has worn well. It retains its sense of charm and manages the tricky balancing act of being both entertaining and serious. It was a bit unnerving though, that the audience laughed at some of the more serious passages. Perhaps we do need a new approach. But Bob Crowley’s designs are handsome and have stood up well.

In the pit, Nicholas Collon started the opening chords of the overture at such a leisurely tempo that I worried we might be in for a slow steady evening. Not a bit, slow introduction over Collon launched the overture briskly with a crisp response from the ENO strings. The playing was lively and quite slimline; not exactly historically informed, but nicely lithe and responsive. Collon was a sensitive accompanist and only hints of unsteadiness in the ensembles suggested that this was a debut.

Diction was excellent all round and Jeremy Sams’s English version was put over well; though I have to admit that I still have a hankering for E J Dent’s rather more stately translation. I do wonder whether it might be about time for one of our companies to try going back to basics and giving a feel for what the uncut, unbowdlerised libretto might be like.

The old adage that you should always leave an audience wanting more certainly applied here. Hytner’s production seemed in good shape and the performance, if not quite vintage, was full of good things and memorable performances. It will be missed.

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