There are some positive things to say about Daisy Evans’ new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome, but overall it is a staging where the high-quality individual elements do not come together as a cohesive whole.

Thando Mjandana (Tamino) and Nazan Fikret (First Lady)
© Craig Fuller

Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto has been liberally and refreshingly translated by the director. Traditionalists may baulk at some of the liberties taken, and the use of modern vernacular of social media life-gurus in encouraging Tamino’s quest with such phrases as “You’ve got this! Just do it! You’re amazing!” But this is a libretto that aims to appeal to the contemporary experience as much as the traditional. There is plenty of humour too. However, sometimes the spoken transitions between the musical moments are laboured and stultifying, disturbing the enchantment required for a fairy tale.

The lead performances were all strong. Bringing stage charisma to the fore was bass-baritone Neal Davies as Papageno, who interpreted the character with a casual informality and humour that matched Evans' libretto perfectly. Jonathan Lemalu (Sarastro) provided a deep bass that was wonderful to listen to for its resonance and timbre, though it sometimes lacked the projection its quality deserved. April Koyejo-Audiger and Thando Mjandana were both convincing as Pamina and Tamino respectively, with strong clear voices that distinguished themselves both in their solo work and when cutting through ensembles. 

Julia Sitkovetsky (Queen of the Night)
© Craig Fuller

Notable, too, was Julia Sitkovetsky, who did not flinch an iota at the high F staccato sequences in her rendition of the Queen of the Night's Act “Der Hölle Rache”. Indeed, this famous aria was not only a musical highlight but also the best bit of staging in the entire performance, with a descending light circle and mist creating a dramatic intensity that was often lacking in other parts of the production. 

Other things worked well. The circular lamps, reminiscent of the glowing lamps in Maxfield Parrish's The Lantern Bearers, created a charming atmosphere and the neon tubes of the Three Young Ones added effective non-verbal nuance to the storytelling. 

Unfortunately, the set design were rarely effective, often detracting from the performance. The brightly coloured abstract design formed mainly of right angles, gave the impression of an amalgam of short staircases and over-sized Ikea bunkbeds. It often seemed to get in the way of the action more than contribute to it, and the mechanics of it being repositioned often exposed the stagehands. It was striking that in a story about the existential yin and yang of night and day, of journeying through the earth, of Papageno lamenting the absence from his birds, there was not a single natural element depicted in the set. At one point a tree apparently appears, though it was fortunate that the libretto explained what it was. None of Papageno’s puppet birds had ever seen a feather. It simply did not gel.

April Koyejo-Audiger (Pamina) and Neal Davies (Papageno)
© Craig Fuller

The costumes too, were often at odds with the natural world. The Armed Men were a gaudy yellow, red and silver calamity befitting a pantomime production of Flash Gordon, despite their vocal performances being well delivered. The women of the chorus seemed transposed from the set of The Handmaid’s Tale. All of this detracted from the intensity that Mozart was able to create within his score.

Fortunately, the quality of the vocal performances were able to carry the production where some of the conceptual ideas failed to gel cohesively. WNO's orchestra, under the baton of Frederick Brown, did a sterling job, being tightly balanced and secure, ensuring that, despite the production where fresh ideas found their limits rather quickly, the timeless quality of Mozart's music triumphed.