Friday 15 March 2019

A strong cast in a highly engaging revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicité

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Julia Bauer and Rupert Charlesworth, © Donald Cooper
ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Julia Bauer and Rupert Charlesworth, © Donald Cooper
Mozart The Magic Flute; Lucy Crowe, Rupert Charlesworth, Thomas Oliemans, Brindley Sherratt, Julia Bauer, dir: Simon McBurney, cond: Ben Gernon; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 March 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strong cast brings an engaging sense of theatricality and vitality to this revival of Simon Burney and Complicité's production

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Thomas Oliemans and Lucy Crowe, © Donald Cooper
Thomas Oliemans and Lucy Crowe, © Donald Cooper
Mozart's The Magic Flute returned to the London Coliseum on Thursday 14 March 2019 in Simon McBurney's production which is a collaboration between English National Opera (ENO) and Complicité. ENO has assembled a strong cast, with Lucy Crowe as Pamina, Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino, Thomas Oliemans as Papageno, Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro, Julia Bauer as the Queen of the Night, Jonathan Lemalu as the Speaker, Daniel Norman as Monastatos, Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson as the Three Ladies, and Rowan Pierce as Papagena, with David Webb and David Ireland as Armed Men and Priests. The revival director was Josie Daxter, who was associate director/movement in the original production, and she was movement director for the recent premiere of Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child [see my review]. The conductor was Ben Gernon, Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic [see my article] and winner of the Salzburg Festival Young Conductor's Award. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jeffreys who had produced the English translation used.

Returning to McBurney's production after something of a gap [we last saw the production in 2013, see my review] I was struck by how well the production is holding up. It is a performance full of stage business, and there remains a crispness and vitality to the action. That Ben Thompson does live drawing to create some of the video effects and that Ruth Sullivan as Foley artist creates sound events live means that there is a vital sense of performance (and danger). But many of the effects, such as the paper birds manipulated by Complicité's actors, could easily become stale and they have not.

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Brindley Sherratt, © Donald Cooper
ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Brindley Sherratt, © Donald Cooper
It remains an overly busy production, and there were moments in Act Two (which lasts 90 minutes) when I felt McBurney and his designers (Michael Levine, sets, Nicky Gillibrand, costumes, Jean Kalman, lighting, Finn Ross, video, Gareth Fry, sound) were a bit too carried away by their own ideas and the production needed to move on faster. McBurney successfully creates his own world, there is no sense of Enlightenment, nor Masonic symbolism, nor satire of late 18th century Austrian politics and it works because the cast believe in it and work hard to create a sense of the opera happening here and now in this space.

Rupert Charlesworth made an engagingly naive Tamino. This was Charlesworth's first leading role at ENO [he last appeared as Emilio in Handel's Partenope, see my review], and his lyric tenor has developed a remarkable strength and virility. So there was never any danger of his not filling the spaces of the London Coliseum, perhaps there was a tendency to hardness, to push the voice a little too much, but it is hardly fair for a critic to say 'relax' when listening to the first night of a major debut! Charlesworth brought a fine sense of line to Tamino's music, 'Dies Bildnis' was beautifully done, but more importantly he engaged us. His slightly naive personality and charm combined with a sense of determination made the character appealing, and perhaps it helped that he is fit and trim, radiating an aura of sexy wholesomeness.

Lucy Crowe was a delightful Pamina, and she succeeded in giving this rather passive character depth so that between each appearance we sensed the way Pamina's character is developing. Her plangent tones were ideal for Pamina's arias, bringing real expressiveness and beauty to the line and making us feel she cared without bending the music. The apparent simplicity of Crowe's delivery meant that moments like 'Die Wahrheit' in the Act One finale worked brilliantly.

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Daniel Norman, Lucy Crowe © Donald Cooper
ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Daniel Norman, Lucy Crowe © Donald Cooper
Thomas Oliemans impressed at his previous ENO appearance as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro last year [see my review], and here he made a delightful and very human Papageno. Oliemans is familiar with the production having performed in with Dutch National Opera and in Aix, but here he was singing in English rather than German. Yet he remained witty and communicative, bringing a nice element of physical comedy to the role whilst always engaging the audience. As with the best Papagenos there was a vein of sadness running through the performance, complementing the comedy.

Brindley Sherratt really brought out the game-show host/evangelist cult leader elements to Sarastro which are key to McBurney's version of the opera, and Sherratt radiated power and menace with ease. Of course, this was combined with a fine account of Sarastro's arias, with Sherratt's bass easily sliding down to the lower reaches, and overall singing with a fine sense of line. He certainly wasn't warm and cuddly, you never quite trusted this Sarastro, but you believed in him and perhaps feared him.

Julie Bauer has performed the role of the Queen of the Night regularly in her native Germany, this was her ENO debut and (I presume) the first time she had sung the role in English. Her Act One aria was impressive for its accuracy, but she lacked the necessary fierceness and did not quite fill the theatre with vibrant sound in they way the role needs. This improved in Act Two, and her second aria started to capture the fire needed and you sense that Bauer is still getting to grips with the theatrical space.

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Thomas Oliemans and Rowan Pierce, © Donald Cooper
Thomas Oliemans and Rowan Pierce, © Donald Cooper
Daniel Norman made a funny yet nasty Monastatos, combining physical comedy with a real dramatic sense of threat. ENO Harewood Artist Rowan Pierce (one of five Harewood Artists in the production) was making her main stage Coliseum debut as Papagena, a traditional route for lyric sopranos into this opera. It was a delightful debut, Pierce's down to earth persona coming over well.

The Three Ladies included Susanna Hurrell making her house debut and two Harewood Artists, Katie Stevenson and Samantha Price, creating quite a lyric trio but certainly a sparky one and their opening ensemble was delightfully physical, these were certainly not young women to mess with! Two more Harewood Artists, David Webb and David Ireland provided firm support as the two Priests and the two Armed Men, whilst Jonathan Lemalu played the Speaker with impressive firmness and strength. And Lemalu will be taking over the role of Sarastro at two performances (9, 11 April).

The ENO Chorus had great fun making the Priests and members of Sarastro's community rather less warmly traditional than usual, complementing Brindley Sherratt's Sarastro with a sense of this business-like cult (or cult-like business community), and giving us some fine singing along the way. In the big ensembles there was little sense of we are the chorus, those are the actors, and the two groups blended well.

I like the fact that the pit is raised for this production, giving a far more intimate sense of communication between orchestra and stage, and it was great to see much more of conductor Ben Gernon in action. He and the orchestra seemed to develop a fine rapport; his account of the overture was one of contrasts, impressive slowness and the crisp vitality, and throughout he seemed to keep things moving in way which complemented this production. The orchestra's lithe sound giving a nod to the many period-inspired performances it has given.

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, © Donald Cooper
ENO The Magic Flute 2019, © Donald Cooper
This is not my favourite account of The Magic Flute and I still regret the missing elements in this complex score, but a strong and believable cast gave us a thoroughly engaging evening. There was a significant young element in the first night audience, and they were clearly enjoying themselves.

The production is in repertoire with nine performances until 11 April 2019, with such a strong cast and fine ensemble it is definitely worth catching.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Magnificent original: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake restored in a superb performance from Vladimir Jurowski on Pentatone (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate conversations: the young Jubilee Quartet in three quartets spanning 20 years of Haydn's maturity (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting drama: Peter Konwitschny's production of Halevy's La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Claustrophobic & atmospheric: Verdi's Macbeth from English Touring Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • Letting the music speak for itself: Mozart's Idomeneo from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Cadogan Hall debut: the Gesualdo Six in a programme of Renaissance and Contemporary (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Children's Hour: intimate and delightfully casual, Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann at Pizza Express Live - concert review
  • Haydn's The Seasons from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Virtuosity and intimacy: Flauguissimo duo's A Salon Opera  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Political piano and terrific technique: Adam Swayne's (speak to me): new music, new politics (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera  - opera review
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Home

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