The ENO's Magic Flute ignores everything that makes Mozart's opera great

Someone should tell Simon McBurney, who made the Queen of the Night a cripple, that wheelchairs went out in the last millennium

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

The Magic Flute

English National Opera, in rep until 7 December

L’enfant prodigue

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

A new production of The Magic Flute is something to look forward to, if with apprehension. How many aspects of this protean masterpiece will it encompass, and how many will be neglected or distorted? The answer, in the case of Simon McBurney’s effort at the Coliseum, is that almost everything that contributes to the work’s greatness is ignored or reduced, so that an evening that should be spent in a state of growing elation merely induces irritation deepening to rage, with patches of life-draining boredom. Not that the first-night audience shared my view, to judge from the roar of applause that greeted the final curtain, and the frequent guffaws and outbursts of clapping during the work.

In his note in the programme, McBurney quotes Mozart writing in a letter to his wife after one of the earliest performances of Die Zauberflöte, ‘What gives me the greatest pleasure is the silent approval.’ The occasional audience silences at the Coliseum were indicative only of the inadequacies of some of the singing, though on the whole the musical side of the performance was less depressing than the dramatic side.

Not being much of a theatregoer, I haven’t seen any of McBurney’s productions with his Complicite company, but I gather they stress theatricality, which may be why there was a guy at the side of the stage writing on a blackboard, which was projected on to the front curtain, such informative things as ‘The Magic Flute, Act 1’ and near the end ‘Fire’, ‘Water’, ‘Triumph’, though none of those things could have come as news to a sentient audience — and, annoying as it was, why, having begun to inform us of what we already knew, didn’t that continue? It was indicative of the whole production that ideas weren’t followed through, there was no discernible continuity. Perhaps the plan was to hide the undoubted incoherence of The Magic Flute’s plot by eliminating narrative altogether.

There were so many bewilderments, such as the Queen of Night’s being a cripple in a wheelchair (shouldn’t someone have told McBurney that wheelchairs in opera went out with the last millennium?), and the Three Boys — excellently sung — being frail old codgers in appearance, that one ceased to have any expectations and thus nothing was surprising. Some things, nonetheless, remained wounding: why were Sarastro’s followers a collection of middle managers, singing the most sublime chorus that Mozart ever wrote? — though ENO’s chorus was not impressive.

The orchestra is almost on a level with the stage, which has odd acoustic consequences. String textures are emaciated, and there is an almost complete lack of sounds from the lower instruments, so that the sections of ultimate solemnity slip by unheard. The young conductor Gergely Madaras has some good ideas, but many of his tempi are too brisk, and he didn’t seem to mind that the first violins were inaudible in the adagio opening of the Overture. He made so sure that the singers weren’t drowned by the raised orchestra that sometimes they were scarcely supported by it.

The finest singing came from Ben Johnson as Tamino, not a grateful role; he didn’t act much, though the same goes for most of the other singers. Perhaps they feel threatened by the huge platform that hovers menacingly above them for much of the time, and the total lack of anything to create an atmosphere. When Tamino has to play his flute, he takes it to the orchestra’s first flautist — just in case anyone was under any illusion that Johnson could play the instrument himself.

Most of the solo singing is tolerable, but not much of it is more than that, and Devon Guthrie’s Pamina is almost ineffectual, in what is perhaps the opera’s most important role, especially if you take a strongly feminist view of it — the Two Priests’ inconveniently misogynistic duet is omitted. Maximum exasperation comes from Roland Wood’s self-indulgent Papageno, taking his solo scene in Act II to such lengths that almost single-handedly he must have been responsible for the overrun of 30 minutes. This Papageno is a witless unlovable oaf with an occasional northern accent and a fine singing voice, undeserving of Mary Bevan’s cute Papagena.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama put on a bill of two rarities. I wasn’t feeling in the mood for Donizetti’s merry Francesca di Foix, so only saw Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue. It’s an early work with which he won the Prix de Rome, so it has academic virtues, but besides those he cultivates a Massenet-like warmth and sweetness, which serve very well for the welcome of the Prodigal Son back into his family. Austerely staged — actually it’s a cantata — the role of the Prodigal’s mother was powerfully sung by Lauren Fagan, and the Prodigal himself was the equally impressive Gérard Schneider. The orchestra, under Dominic Wheeler, was on great form.

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  • masaccio68

    Magic Flute is silly even by opera standards. The plot is foolish, and internally incoherent, the music is largely boring and sentimental, and the only creature with any spark is the Queen of the Night. The priests and the monk chorus are beyond redemption as tendentious, the creatures aren’t even decent nightmares, and the pre-Freudian sexual symbolism is obvious and crude.

    But I’m sure our Mr. Tanner can explain how it should be performed so as not to make the audience laugh in all the wrong places.

    • Ken

      This comment is so foolish that it does not deserve a response. The outpourings of a total philistine.

      • masaccio68

        Ken, I’ve sung 50 opera productions, including Flute. I’ve seen dozens more around the world. I’ve sung all of the major choral works.

        Maybe that’s why I’m a philistine?

      • masaccio68

        We sang Flute for an audience of 12-year olds. There was a snicker when the Three Ladies handed Tamino the Flute so he could change sorrow into joy.

        It does seem aimed at children….

  • Good

    The Magic Flute is a Masonic opera, that is to say, Mozart and Schikaneder were both Masons, and the underlying message is that of the transition from a religious age(symbolised by the Queen of the Night) to the “Age of Reason” (symbolised by Sarastro & Co, and possibly led by the Masons, which is why you see Sarastro’s followers in business suits, and words like Truth, Wisdom, etc. flashed up on the screen. Also you get a lot of repetition of phrases in Mozart and this is particularly useful (for the Masons) in phrases such as, “We’ll meet again”. Basically the whole opera is a vehicle to promote Masonry, and if you understand this then the plot will make a whole lot more sense.

    Having seen the posters beforehand (and, as a performance artist, having done my own version of Magic Flute arias) I realised this interpretation was going to be a modern one and if you are prepared for that then you may be okay with some of the weirdness. I have seen a lot of weirdness in my time in the name of “performance”, and I actually enjoyed it a great deal more than I thought I would and didn’t think, by some standards, it was too “out there”. It will possibly appeal to the YouTube generation rather than traditionalists, but all in all it moved along at a good pace and wasn’t boring at all. Anyway just my two cents.