David McVicar can be relied upon for dependable, revivable opera productions, and his Magic Flute from 2003, already reappearing in its eighth incarnation at the Royal Opera House, is one of his more perceptive and imaginative offerings. John Macfarlane’s dark, Gothic-meets-Enlightenment setting and Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting create an ideal space for Mozart’s serious pantomime, even if the mechanics are perhaps beginning to show their age, given the handful of judders and pauses that dogged some of the scenery’s moving parts at this second performance of the run. McVicar successfully irons out the work’s dramatic inconsistencies and neatly banishes its racism (the portrayal of the slave Monostatos), but does nothing to temper its misogyny and with its sympathetic portrayal of Sarastro almost allows the audience to become party to the blatant sexism at the heart of his community.

Elsa Dreisig (Pamina) and Tuuli Takala (Queen of the Night) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Elsa Dreisig (Pamina) and Tuuli Takala (Queen of the Night)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

In its 16 years, the production has seen many different singers come and go, and for this latest revival the cast is almost entirely new, including a number of house debuts. Chief among the latter is Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala, an experienced Queen of the Night who holds, I note from her biography, the rare distinction of having sung the role in all three Berlin opera houses (she is now based in Dresden). Her top notes were spotless, yet there’s a lustrous tone to her more ‘normal’ soprano register that gave the character depth and a believable engagement with her rage. As her daughter Pamina, French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig sang with soft-grained tone that sometimes felt at odds with her feisty dramatic portrayal, but she was much more successful in matching voice and role in her sensitive, focused “Ach, ich fühl’s” in the second act. British tenor Benjamin Hulett’s Tamino was fresh and lyrical, and one sensed his journey of self-discovery through both his singing and his acting. Italian baritone Vito Priante, meanwhile, made an uncommonly unexaggerated Papageno – all the humour of the character was there, but without the hamming-up that can sometimes dog this role, and his singing exhibited nobility without resorting to vocal ‘gurning’.

Benjamin Hulett (Tamino) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Benjamin Hulett (Tamino)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

A certain vocal over-characterisation that seems to go with the territory for operatic tenor villains (cf Wagner’s Mime) didn’t detract from Rodell Rosel’s oleaginous Monostatos, while the richly hued bass of Andreas Bauer Kanabas made for a commanding and all very human Sarastro, with Darren Jeffery engaging as his Speaker sidekick. There was an uncommonly well-blended trio of Ladies in Kiandra Howarth, Hongni Wu and Nadine Weissmann – and good to hear and see the latter, Bayreuth’s iconic most recent Erda, finally making her ROH debut as the Third Lady. The trio of Boys, Sholto McMillan, Sam Lyne-Hall and Inigo Guthrie, who spend some of the evening swooping across the stage in a flying machine, coped admirably with the demands of their roles. Harry Nicoll and Donald Maxwell made a comedic double act as the two Priests, especially when unable to control their dancing legs at the sound of Papageno’s magic bells, Andrés Presno and Julian Close sang sonorously as the two Men in Armour and, finally, Yaritza Véliz made the most of her belated appearance as Papagena.

Vito Priante (Papageno) and Elsa Dreisig (Pamina) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Vito Priante (Papageno) and Elsa Dreisig (Pamina)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Leo Hussain, last seen at the house conducting the very different sound-world of Enescu’s Oedipe, directed a stylish performance of Mozart’s heavenly score: fresh, vivid and to the point, with a particular sensitivity to the balancing of the composer’s all-important woodwind writing.

****1