Welsh National Opera's revival of Dominc Cooke's 2005 Magic Flute is an unabashedly entertaining evening of operatic pantomime. Unencumbered by any great interpretive insight beyond the curiosities afforded by the Magritte-inspired costumes and set, this was a Singspiel of good-enough singing and thigh-slappingly light hearted Spiel.

Simon Cosby Buttle (First Priest) and Chorus © Bill Cooper
Simon Cosby Buttle (First Priest) and Chorus
© Bill Cooper

The revival comes as part of the company's spring season exploring the concept of monarchy. Alongside Un ballo in maschera and Roberto Devereux, Magic Flute is an apt 21st-century exploration of the relevance of monarchy and their succession to the new world. Putting aside the context of the season and an excellent programme essay by Steph Power though, there is little more depth of interpretation in this Magic Flute. On the whole, it is a straightforwardly fun evening of mostly good quality music and pantomime humour. In today's matinee, played to a Wales Millennium Centre packed with a far younger audience than usually seen, the applause halfway through the overture suggested that many in the house were not regulars, for which WNO must be congratulated.

Jeremy Sams' English translation was mostly sung with adequate clarity and projection to avoid the need for much reference to the surtitles, though some inconsistencies in comic timing occasionally made it feel a touch unwieldy. Elsewhere there was a curious sensation of flipping between W.S. Gilbert and children's television. Singing Papageno for this performance only, Gareth Brynmor John embraced the latter with unswerving enthusiasm, though fortunately his singing was strong enough to override the hyper-vivid acting. His eventual union with Papagena (Claire Hampton), after she shed her Yorkshire crone persona, was full of gentle charm, despite the appearance of a crècheful of mechanically crawling babies. Their counterpart couple, Tamino and Pamina, improved as the show progressed. Ben Johnson sang Tamino with a controlled, bright sound, even while warding off an enormous monster lobster(!) with a chair.

Ben Johnson (Tamino) © Bill Cooper
Ben Johnson (Tamino)
© Bill Cooper

There was more emotion to be found later, as his trials progressed. Pamina (Anita Watson) was meek and softly sung until finding much more psychological depth in her scenes alone with her mother and, later, Sarastro (James Platt). The latter was probably the most affecting scene of the performance, and all of Platt’s other contributions were superbly well sung, his rich bass full and dominating throughout his range.

Anna Siminska sang the Queen of the Night with attractively delicate coloratura, though her famous “Der Hölle Rache” always felt slightly insecure, and the sense of hell’s wrath burning was not wholly convincing. The three ladies, clad in black dresses and white pinafores, provided a gleefully oestrogen-fuelled contribution in their lustful advances on the unconscious Tamino, and sang with pleasing balance as a trio, as did the three boys (or two boys and one girl). They projected their delicate trebles with apparent ease and impeccable diction, though they might reasonably have wondered why they found themselves suspended in the air peddling penny farthings in order to power a giant mechanical fish mouth. The minor characters handled themselves well, with Howard Kirk as Monostatos giving comedic clumsiness while also highlighting just how uncomfortable his unsolicited advances on Pamina are in the modern era.

Anna Siminska (Queen of the Night) © Bill Cooper
Anna Siminska (Queen of the Night)
© Bill Cooper

The staging offered little more depth beyond this. The set for the most part consists of a number of large wooden doors (always in multiples of three, aptly), with blue skies above in reference to Magritte. Lighting effects amount to flicks on and off in coordination with Tamino’s blindfolding, the odd flash of lightning and some welcome brightness at the back of the stage for the temple scenes of the last minutes of the opera.

Cameron Lewis, Ruby Llewelyn, Luke Samra (Three Boys) © Bill Cooper
Cameron Lewis, Ruby Llewelyn, Luke Samra (Three Boys)
© Bill Cooper

The WNO Chorus, clad in long, bright orange coats and bowler hats, sang with power far outweighing their modest numbers, even when singing as apparent disembodied heads on the floor in Act 2. This was entertaining, as was their use of umbrellas for voting, but didn't seem to add much beyond this. There was plenty to admire in the orchestral playing, with a lithe, crisp sound providing plenty of punchiness in perfect balance with the singers.

Although not a Magic Flute of any real interpretive depth, it was plenty of fun and there was a steady stream of giggles every minute or two and large numbers of primary-aged children sat with rapt attention.

***11