Sunday 26 September 2021

An engaging young Papageno and fine international cast, David McVicar's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is in fine health at Covent Garden

Mozart Die Zauberflöte - Royal Opera House
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Royal Opera House

Mozart Die Zauberflöte; Daniel Behle, Salome Jicia, Huw Montague Rendall, Krzysztof Baczyk, Aleksandra Olczyk, dir: David McVicar/Daniel Dooner, cond: Hartmut Haenchen; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
David McVicar's now quite venerable production is still in radiant health, and this run featured the fine house debut of baritone Huw Montague Rendall as a very engaging Papageno

The Royal Opera's current production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte debuted in 2003 and somehow we have so far managed to miss it, despite revival on an almost biennial basis. The current revival of David McVicar's production is directed by Daniel Dooner and performances feature a complex web of double casting. On Saturday 25 October 2021, we saw Daniel Behle at Tamino, Salome Jicia as Pamina, Krzysztof Baczyk as Sarastro, Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno, Aleksandra Olczyk as the Queen of the Night, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. The designs by John Macfarlane are still extremely handsome and the production itself seems to be in superb health.

Mozart Die Zauberflöte - Huw Montague Rendall - Royal Opera House
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Huw Montague Rendall - Royal Opera House

McVicar takes quite a straightforward view of the piece, with an Enlightenment setting creating a sense of the all-male, quasi Masonic atmosphere of Sarastro's merry band, with Sarastro (Krzysztof Baczyk) himself as something of an enlightened despot of a ruler. The lighter elements are not shirked, and there is a delightful use of puppetry for the snake and for a bird which manages to foil Papageno (Huw Montague Rendall) and rather reminded me of Rod Hull and Emu! McVicar pretty much takes the plot as read, except for making Monostatos (Michael Colvin) ugly rather than black. The misogyny of the original is there, but toned down and it is clear that the women are not simply content to sit back and let the men have everything.

German tenor Daniel Behle made a rather serious, noble Tamino, determined and perhaps a little cool. Behle recently sang David in Wagner's Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth and made his role debut as Wagner's Lohengrin, but his voice still has the ability to shape an elegant line, and there was no doubting the beauty of tone in such moments as his 'Dies Bildnis', yet there was steel to for some of the later moments.

As Pamina, Georgian soprano Salome Jicia was remarkably feisty, combining strong personality with elegant tone, and giving the feeling that this Pamina was something of a spitfire. She has quite a vibrant voice (she will be singing Puccini's Tosca in Nancy), but also a feeling for the shape of Mozart's music. She and Behle made an intriguing couple, and you felt that in their life together Pamina would have as much a say as Tamino.

Huw Montague Rendall made his Covent Garden debut at the start of this run, though Papageno is a role that he has sung with Glyndebourne on Tour. Montague Rendall embraced the sheer physicality of the role (it was originally created in 2003 by Simon Keenlyside), and he also proved to have a nice feel for understated humour too, and often his character seemed something akin to Michael Crawford's Frank in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em in that Papageno was not consciously funny, but almost entirely serious, which made it funnier. The role was beautifully sung, with lovely rich, dark yet flexible tone and an easy ability to fill the theatre with personality. His Papagena was the bouncily characterful and completely charming Haegee Lee.

Polish soprano Aleksandra Olczyk was the Queen of the Night, singing with laser focus and brilliant tone, using the music to devastating effect and wonderfully vibrant tone throughout her range. She was supported by the Three Ladies of Alexandra Lowe, Hanna Hipp, and Stephanie Wake-Edwards, something more of an ensemble than three distinct personalities, but strongly characterised and finely sung.

Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk made a distinguished Sarastro, bringing the Enlightenment Ruler element of the characterisation out rather then the kindly old philosopher. Baczyk both looked and sounded good, and his voice had the flexibility and range for the role. A supremely distinguished performance.

David Soar made a fine Speaker in the same vein, with Harry Nicoll and Donald Maxwell as the characterful and highly contrasted Priests. Alan Pingarron and James Platt (who sings Sarastro at some performances) were very fine and vocally well matched Armed Men. Michael Colvin clearly relished the nastiness of his performance as Monastatos, and so did we!

The three boys were Rafael Flutter, Ben Jardim and Victor Wiggin, making a fine trio with a definite sense of theatrical presence about them, and they held their own well in the Act Two quartet with Jicia's Pamina.

This was a large scale, symphonic performance of the work with a big chorus (in terrific form) and Hartmut Haenchen taking quite a steady view of pacing. There were fast moments such as the Three Ladies' initial trio, but overall there was a steadiness to the pace and at times during Act Two (the longer of the two acts) I wanted both music and drama to move with more impetus. The lovely moments and striking scenes did not always flow together and carry the drama as they should.

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