Fresh Magic Flute

9 Nov

I went to the first night of the last two new Magic Flutes at ENO (the Miller production in 1986 and the Hytner in 1988) and so it seemed fitting to go to the first night of their latest one on 7th November.  I enjoyed it enormously.  No Flute is going to be perfect and there were some irritations about this one, but, overall, it made for a very satisfying evening – as interesting and enjoyable in its way as Hytner’s.

The production is by Simon McBurney – a co-production, apparently, his group Complicité, with Amsterdam (which, as usual, got the opportunity to see it before London did) and Aix en Provence.  The first thing you notice is that the orchestra is much higher than usual and that there is an easy link between them and the stage – Tamino can hand his Flute to played by the flautist and, similarly, Papageno’s bells are played by a musician from the orchestra.  On one side of the stage is a box with various small bits of set.  These can be filmed and projected on to cloths.  On the other is a sound box where sound effects can be made.  I didn’t feel either particularly added to the enjoyment of the piece, though they didn’t particularly harm it, and a number of members of the audience found it amusing that, during the overture, someone was being filmed writing “The Magic Flute” and “Act 1” which were then projected.  In the centre is a platform which can be lifted into any number of different angles.  Cloths can be flown in for projections.  That is the set.

This enables a very clear projection of the story and some marvellous effects.  I was taken particularly by sense of distance that could be conveyed: the first couple of apppearances by the three boys had them high up on the platform, seen through a cloth as if giving advice from a different plane.  They looked like Yoda in Star Wars and I rather enjoyed the sense of wisdom this gave them.  There was a splendid star effect for the Queen of the Night.  The temples were books, as if in a library, with the Speaker being shown, distantly   Pamina’s picture is projected on to sheets of paper.  The projections of the fire and water worked very impressively.  Technically it’s slick but with just the right sense of improvisation.  I wanted a cuter group of animals.  Perhaps it looks a bit monochrome – it tends to be in shades in brown and grey – but there’s a unity about it.

It’s in modern dress.  Tamino arrives in a track suit and is rescued by three ladies in fatigues.  Papageno looks like a window cleaner – older than I normally expect.  The Queen of the Night is in a wheelchair (symbolising the power she lost when her husband died?).  Sarastro and the priests are suited – I didn’t particularly feel that I understood who they were – a group of civil servants, a politburo?  There were similarly dressed women, but they were clearly not part of the governing body.  Like most modern productions, I wasn’t sure that it had got Monostatatos right – a fat, sleazy lecher, but not very dangerous.

What I enjoyed was the clarity of the staging, the truthfulness of the acting and the interaction of the characters.  As you would expect from a director best known for his work in the straight theatre, the dialogue was convincingly done and you believed in the emotions.  It was a staging that involved you and engaged you in the piece and let the magic work.

There was a new translation by Stephen Jeffreys – strong on the dialogue and in telling the story, less good in the music.  There were too many half rhymes and, too often, you felt the note values were compromised to assist the translation.  It’s clearly built for this production, but isn’t a patch on Jeremy Sams’s marvellous version.

The cast was good.  I’ve heard stronger musical performances, but there was a sense of ensemble and togetherness about the evening that worked really well.  Ben Johnson sang Tamino really beautifully and was able to make more than the usual cardboard character simply by the care of his acting and his sheer involvement in what was going on.  Devon Guthrie was a nice Pamina.  She doesn’t find as much in the music as other Pamina’s have, but she sang clearly and touchingly.  Roland Wood is an experienced Papageno.  I’ve seen more charming interpretations but he made the touching – a gruff, lonely suspicious man whose attempted suicide and reunion with Papagena had just the righ tension and joy you need.  James Creswell struck me as a rather gruff Sarastro – I like a darker, smoother voice – and I didn’t feel that he really knew what the role was about, the one significant failing of this production.  Cornelia Götz was a very fine Queen of the Night – accurate and fearsome in her arias.  I liked it that she stayed on at the end and you felt there was almost a reconciliation between her and Sarastro.  The three ladies were really excellent and the boys were strong, too.

Gergely Madaras struck me as a hugely promising conductor.  His speeds were brisk and he caught the lightness and airiness of the piece.  You heard the orchestral details and the music was at one with what was going on onstage.  I hope we’ll here more of him.

Overall, I found this an enormously enjoyable, engaging, fresh take on this piece.  It provided its own individual slant that gave insights in one direction, while not answering all the questions.  It held the house.  I’d love to see it again and watch it grow with a different cast, bringing different things.  It has the look, however, of a one-off.

One major gripe: I wish the ENO would take care about its start times and the length of the intervals.  We started five minutes, late, the interval lasted well over the stated twenty minutes and, with the performance lasting a bit longer than expected, we were out a full 25 minutes later than the advertised end and I missed my 22:47 train.  It was worth it, but with a bit more discipline about time, I’d have caught it.

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