Die Zauberflöte begone. The Royal Opera has supped with the marketing devil and now sells Mozart’s Singspiel under its English title, despite usually being more dogmatic about employing the original language. However, there are twelve scheduled performances in this revival of The Magic Flute and that’s a lot of seats in search of bums, so every little helps. Besides, if revivals of Sir David McVicar’s 2003 production continue to be as sharp as the current one by Daniel Dooner, let them call it what they like.

The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Musically it was rewarding, too. At 78 the German conductor Hartmut Haenchen is no spring chicken, but his reading of Mozart’s late score fizzed with youthful élan from first to last and both the ROH Orchestra and a very good ‘A’ company (it alternates with a ‘B’ cast that looks just as promising) responded to him with charm and enthusiasm.

The director may have lost his ROH Rigoletto to the new broom of Oliver Mears but this show survives and it’s still a cracker. Unlike many Flutes McVicar's production treats Mozart's score as a proper opera, albeit with romp instead of pomp, rather than knockabout entertainment. With chiaroscuro lighting by Paule Constable and heavy dark-wood sets by John Macfarlane, it delivers dignity as well as comedy. McVicar finds cunning ways to bridge those two qualities, as when he slips a raft of sly subversions into his characterisation of Sarastro (a lacklustre Krzysztof Bączyk) whom he depicts as a mansplaining control freak who keeps his drably-dressed handmaids firmly in their place.

Salome Jicia (Pamina) and Bernard Richter (Tamino)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

As for Bernard Richter’s vocally eloquent if dramatically indolent Tamino, his quest for Pamina may be a long night’s journey into day but we’re never short-changed by the frolics that surround him. For these we have Huw Montague Rendall to thank. The young baritone cut his Papageno teeth at last year’s Glyndebourne semi-staging, but here he had licence to go the full Michael Crawford with pratfalls, dive-slides and physical tics galore, while never missing a note of his pan-pipe motif or remembering he’s primarily there to sing. His routine with a War Horse-style puppet bird was a joy; his thought of suicide (at which, in a moment of inspiration, he rendered his final pipe call as a doleful whistle) had the first-night audience exhorting him to think again. It was, in short, the most remarkable house debut I can remember since an astounding new Pelléas graced the Opéra de Rouen earlier this year. Come to think of it, that was Montague-Rendall too.

Huw Montague Rendall (Papageno)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

As the leading lady, Salome Jicia was as sympathetic and vulnerable a Pamina as one could hope to encounter, if not blest with the most silvery of timbres. The same couldn’t be said of Brenda Rae’s helium-level coloratura for, although she sounded a little tight in Act 1, her Queen of the Night soared high and free in Act 2 and gave a scintillating account of “Der Hölle Rache”. Alexandra Lowe, Hanna Hipp and Stephanie Wake-Edwards made a distinguished trio of Ladies, Rafael Flutter, Ben Jardim and Victor Wiggin shone as the wise Boys who lead Tamino, and Michael Colvin was an elementally vile Monostatos.

Brenda Rae (The Queen of the Night)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The Achilles heel of McVicar’s otherwise polished production is his depiction of Tamino’s trials. They have always felt like an afterthought, as though the director ran out of rehearsal time to stage them properly, but here they were so inconsequential that they might as well have been omitted altogether. They make an oddly poor interlude in an evening of such great riches, capped as they are by the exploits of Montague Rendall’s featherbrained, some-plovers-do-'ave-'em birdcatcher.