Saturday 23 November 2013

Second view - The Magic Flute at the London Coliseum

ENO - Magic Flute - Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie  (c) Robbie Jack
Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie  (c) Robbie Jack
The premiere of Simon McBurney's production of Mozart's Magic Flute was reviewed on this blog by Hilary. I caught the production for the first time last night (22 November). Gergely Madaras, the inaugural recipient of the ENO's Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellowship, conducted a strong young cast with Ben Johnson (an ENO Harewood Artist) was Tamino and Devon Guthrie was Pamina, with Roland Wood as Papageno, James Creswell as Sarastro, Cornelia Gotz as the Queen of the Night, Brian Galliford as Monostatos and Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldrige as the three ladies, with Mary Bevan as Papagena. Michael Levine's set was simple looking but probably far more complex than it appeared, a simple platform which tilted and raised surrounded by drop curtains on which projections could be seen. It was a production which heavily relied on video (video design by Finn Ross). Much (but not all) the video was handled by a video set up on stage right, which allowed for real-time cartoons but combined with other video into something which was entrancing and imaginative. 

The orchestra was raised which meant that they could see the singers and interact with them, in fact there was much coming and going between stage and pit. There was a sense that music was the origin of the whole production, both the magic flute and the bells were played by orchestral musicians with the players given the instrument by the singer. Then there were the birds. Actors sat by the side of the orchestra pit during the overture, with music on music stands. When Roland Wood as Papageno played his pipes (in fact a melodica) the actors started to articulate the music and turn the sheets into birds. Each time Wood played his pipes these birds appeared all over the stage.

There was a sound designer credited (Gareth Fry) and the whole evening was full of extra sounds and noises. Papageno's pipes were far more complex than usual with bird sounds, and the progress of Tamino through Sarastro's domain was accompanied by strange and threatening noises.

McBurney successfully brought out the magic element of the opera, without having to resort to pantomime, the entire production was full of little miracles of stage magic done out of almost nothing. But he had also jettisoned things. There were no Masonic references, no Egyptian references, no Enlightenment. But more importantly, McBurney had picked up on the rather odd fact that though a force for good, Sarastro is himself something of a dictator. McBurney clearly was ambivalent about Sarastro's domain. Though he staged the finale quite magically with the singers lying on the floor and projected onto the rear drop to create a sun burst shape, Sarastro's domain rather resembled a sinister cult. The chorus were all suited and Sarastro (James Creswell) resembled a combination of an American game show host and television evangelist (his was even given a hand microphone at one point).

Gone was all sense of the enlightenment and, rather fatally, a sense of the grandeur which is in Mozart's music. This was a magical performance, but one which missed an essential element of the opera's make-up. I also couldn't really work out who these people were. Whilst the production eschewed naturalism, it did not replace it with a sense of internal logic. You wondered why Tamino (hardly a prince, dressed as he was in trackie bottoms) was so keen to join Sarastro's rather sinister crew, and why a painter and decorator like Papageno was out catching birds.

Ben Johnson made a highly personable Tamino. The combination of his stature and natural demeanour meant that he wasn't heroic, but more of a little boy lost, and innocent abroad. This was belied by his voice (Johnson has already sung Alfredo in this theatre) was was strong and firm with an admirable sense of line. This was a fluent and highly intelligent performance, one which had moments of beauty but which I think will develop further. There was a sense of discreetness to the singing, and I think that he could afford greater personality at times. During the trials when he really let his voice go, you could sense the Italianate potential underneath.

Devon Guthrie was a gutsy, personable Pamina. Somehow the costume budget didn't stretch to a costume for her so she spent the whole evening in a white shift. She has a warm, attractive lyric voice with a very strongly personable stage personality. Her Pamina was definitely the stronger of the two in the partnership with Tamino. Guthrie sang Mozart's music finely, and her act two aria when she thinks Tamino has abandoned her was very touching. But, I have to confess that I prefer my Pamina with a touch of virginal purity to the line, and Guthrie's singing was full of warmth (at times almost maternal) which implied a different character.

Roland Wood was a funny Papageno if you don't mind a Yorkshire accent being used as short-hand for comic, but frankly this seemed to be a bit slap-dash of McBurney. Perhaps Yorkshire was the only accent Wood could do? Papageno's character was never explained, but Wood created his own internal logic, taking a bubble of Papageno-ness around with him. But this wasn't Schikaneder's Papageno; Wood didn't actually talk to the audience. All the comedy came from business on the stage. There was a spectacular passage where Wood adjusted a series of bottles and pretended to play the magic bells tune on them. Then there was the whole sequence when Tamino and Papageno were intended to be silent, when Wood's progress around the stage was accompanied by comic sound effects. It was all, in fact, very Eric and Ernie (thankfully the references seemed to be deliberate rather than accidental as happened in the past). But Wood made a very personable Papageno and gave us a delightful account of his opening aria and the duet with Guthrie.

James Creswell has a lovely grainy bass-baritone voice which, thankfully goes all the way down and all the way up. This was a performance of Sarastro which could simply sit back and enjoy and not have to worry about whether the low notes would be there. Though finely sung, his performance lacked that element of great nobility which was probably more a reflection of the production and its concept of Sarastro. After all, its difficult to be great and noble when you sing O Isis and Osiris in a business meeting, and some wag has decided that you should pronounce the words Isis and Osiris in the German manner.

Cornelia Gotz is an experienced Queen of the Night and she attacked her coloratura with aplomb and accuracy, even when sitting in a wheel chair. This Queen of the Night was very much on her uppers, losing her power visibly during the evening.  But the casting of Gotz raises another issue, it seems a shame that English National Opera need to cast so many foreign singers in roles.

Brian Galliford was a suitable disgusting Monostatos. Of course he wasn't black, but then Roland Wood wasn't half bird which made nonsense of their first meeting (but that chunk of dialogue was heavily pruned any way). Steven Page brought a nice nobility to the role of  the Speaker. Anthony Gregory and Robert Winslade Anderson were the two priests and the two armed men, though in the armed men's duet there was a tendency for them to over sing.

Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldrige were three well balanced and personable ladies. Though their first appearance was in combat gear, we saw quite how personable in act two when they were transparent dresses over body stockings (in order to tempt Tamino). Their opening trio was delightfully and very characterfully done. Mary Bevan was sheer delight as Papagena. For some reason the three boys were dressed as old men. No matter, Alessio D'Andrea, Finlay A'Court and Alex Karlsson sang well.

The chorus were in subtle form, giving us some nicely rounded singing. The orchestra were on brilliant form, or perhaps it was that we could hear them better as they were raised up. Whatever, the experiment is one that should be repeated with other productions. A special mention must go to the flautist and the percussionist who not only played the magic solos but interacted with the cast (including having Roland Wood flirting with the percussionist as she played). Madaras brought a nice elan to the whole performance, with a lithe almost historically informed feel at times. The opera started with the house lights up, the opening chords the call to attention for which they were attended.

This was a highly enjoyable performance which brought out the imaginative elements in the opera. With the reliance on a troupe of 14 actors, I do wonder how revivable this production is. More worryingly, it had the sense of being charming and highly entertaining Magic Flute lite, without the disturbing and noble elements. But then there is plenty of scope for development. Musically, I think the performance would benefit from a revival with a distinguished Mozart conductor from an older generation, to bring a greater sense of style, polish and sheen to what are highly promising performances.

Update: A correspondent has pointed out that Papageno wasn't meant to be a painter decorator: In the days of catching birds, the catcher would put a sticky glue on trees which the birds would stick to and then the catcher would take his ladder and get them down. The white 'paint' on his costume was meant to be bird poo...

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