How, I wonder, is it best for an opera company to treat a revival of a well-aired, well-liked, decent but not particularly radical production of a top ten opera? This was what the Royal Opera had to contend with in this season’s revival of David McVicar’s 2003 setting of Die Zauberflöte: many in the audience will have known every note of the opera, and several will have been thoroughly familiar with the production.

Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Ekaterina Siurina as Pamina © 2013 ROH / Mike Hoban
Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Ekaterina Siurina as Pamina
© 2013 ROH / Mike Hoban

The Royal Opera’s answer was to flood the cast with singing talent, with top class performers in the six main roles, and to use a young conductor who specialises in Mozart, Julia Jones, coming to Covent Garden for the second time after a 2010 début with Così.

Of those six singers, the biggest crowd pleaser was Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night, who brought the house down just as she did in her San Francisco début last year. Her two arias are showpieces which require mixing sweetness with staccato while keeping perfect control of pitch in notes which leap up and down between opposite ends of the register. Shagimuratova’s performance was up there with the best, with all the notes clear, strong and bang in the middle and the illusion of effortlessness (patently false, if one gives it a moment’s thought) maintained throughout.

Just as impressive, in their totally different style, were the pairing of Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina as Tamino and Pamina. Castronovo brought a rather Italianate languid nobility to the role – an Enlightenment prince, perhaps, rather than a fairytale one – and both he and Siurina sang with immense lyricism and belief. Christopher Maltman larked about merrily as Papageno the bird-catcher, pausing to deliver a transcendent Bei Männern with Siurina as they sing of the glory of true conjugal love. I lost count a long time ago of how often I’ve heard this aria, yet this rendering still sent me happily into dreamland – a truly heavenly piece of music. Brindley Sherratt delivered focused low notes and smooth, firm legato as the magician Sarastro, without, perhaps, injecting the true authority of ancient wisdom; Peter Hoare clearly relished playing the pantomime villain Monostatos.

I was particularly impressed by the singers’ diction, both in sung and spoken passages. My German is pretty limited, but I was finding it easy to follow many of the words, particularly from Maltman and Castronovo. Partly, of course, it’s that Die Zauberflöte was deliberately written in very straightforward, accessible language, a far cry from the elaborate libretti in the Strauss and Wagner operas of which we’re seeing a lot this year and next.

Julia Jones was a woman in a hurry: tempi were brisk throughout and the performance ended well ahead of schedule in spite of the many breaks for audience applause. But it wasn’t all high speed: often, she would throw in a deliciously long rubato in the closing cadence of a phrase before picking up the pace at the start of the next. Overall, it was a very assured orchestral performance, bright, upbeat and perfectly balanced against the singers (although the night did begin badly with the opening timpani beats somewhat syncopated against the massive chords from the rest of the orchestra).

Seeing McVicar’s staging for the second time, I warmed to it rather more than the first. It’s a straightforwardly unfussy affair which is pleasantly artistic and provides enough visual interest without ever getting in the way of the singers - a production which is supportive of the music rather than attempting to dominate it. Credit is due to revival director Leah Hausman: movement on stage was crisp and the visual gags well delivered.

That first time was in 2011, with the late Sir Colin Davis conducting. With Davis’s passing at the weekend fresh in everyone’s mind, the Royal Opera dedicated this performance to his memory: before the start, Antonio Pappano came onto the stage to deliver an emotional tribute to a man whom he credited with saving the institution. He will be sorely missed, and from a Bachtrack point of view, I can only add that of the 11 times we’ve reviewed Davis – and he was already in his eighties when we started the site – he has never received less than four stars. Pappano enjoined us to remember him best by listening to the evening’s music; Jones and the singers provided a fitting tribute.