Dominic Cooke’s charming production of The Magic Flute is based on paintings by Magritte: we see hotel doors let into into a cloud-scattered sky, bowler-hatted men, oddly-positioned bedsteads, strange Masonic hands and eyes. Moreover, the monster who menaces Tamino is a gigantic lobster, already cooked pink but still threatening, and Papageno carries a birdcage which makes him look like another of Magritte’s inventions, La Therapéute. The Three Ladies, led by a full-voiced Camilla Roberts, made short work of the lobster, and looked as if they were about to eat Tamino for breakfast.

Allan Clayton (Tamino) © Robert Workman
Allan Clayton (Tamino)
© Robert Workman

Sung by Allan Clayton, Tamino was immediately much more powerful and dynamic a figure than he is sometimes shown. This was thanks to some vigorous acting, but particularly to his complete command of the difficult tessitura which dogs Tamino throughout the opera. Mozart set the role to lie across the passagio (the break between chest and head voice) in a way that shows up any tenorial weakness or tendency to bleat, but there was none here, and Tamino’s address to the miniature portrait of Pamina was richly sung and moving.

Jacques Imbrailo (Papageno) © Robert Workman
Jacques Imbrailo (Papageno)
© Robert Workman
Papageno always steals the stage, but with Jacques Imbrailo making him into a curiously-feathered Afrikaaner, with accent to match, he was irresistible. “The fithered strengler stroiks agine” is the closest I can get to his pronunciation of one line of dialogue, but the rest was to match, and very funny. When Samantha Hay made her peacock-like entry as the Queen of the Night, there was the usual “can-she-can’t-she” tension until she hit her first high note, and from then onward it was a joy to hear such fluent coloratura, poured out with never a squeak nor a squawk.

Given Papageno’s accent, it was perhaps a relief (well, it was anyway) that Howard Kirk came on as Monostatos without a trace of makeup, black or otherwise. Bowler-hatted and besuited like a Magritte figure, he conveyed menace by flashing his teeth like a rampant gerbil, and chittering at Pamina until driven away by Papageno’s magic bells. The bells, by the way, were played from the pit with great virtuosity by Stephen Wood, an assistant conductor on this production.

The Three Boys were performed by women, which avoided the frequent intonation problems that come from casting boy sopranos, but lost the vulnerability and innocence of the treble voice in favour of more secure tuning and more penetrating volume. Their gift of a flute allowed Tamino to summon up six enchanting – and enchanted – animals, in particular a lion who read The Financial Times, and an ibis who tilted her beak in a coquettish fashion.

Sarastro’s henchmen rang the changes on bowler-hatted solemnity by appearing in bright orange coats with cream piping, while Sarastro himself reversed the colour scheme and wore a Southern planter’s linen suit with orange piping, and a soft straw hat. Scott Wilde had his bottom F below the stave in good form, but some of his higher register was unsteady in intonation. However, his stalwart figure and commanding height gave Sarastro the required majesty, veiled with a threat of violence that makes it no surprise when he sends Monostatos off to be bastinadoed, with 70 lashes on the soles of his feet.

Sophie Bevan (Pamina) and Samantha Hay (The Queen of the Night) © Robert Workman
Sophie Bevan (Pamina) and Samantha Hay (The Queen of the Night)
© Robert Workman

Pamina was sung by Sophie Bevan with the style and grace of a mature woman, not of a young girl, but this gave greater richness to an impressive and moving interpretation, working well in tandem with Allan Clayton’s Tamino, and working well vocally both with Papageno and with the Three Boys. Talking of tandems, the Three Boys themselves made one of their entrances in a balloon-basket crafted out of penny-farthings and other bicycles cobbled together with a fish’s head and tail, so that the jaws snapped and the tail flapped when they turned the pedals, a nice nod to further Surrealist inventions, and a tribute to the unveiling of the hot-air balloon in Vienna shortly before the opera’s first performance in 1791.

With the stern voices of the Speaker and the Armed Men to guide and admonish them, Tamino and Pamina fulfilled their trials, while Papageno fell spectacularly off the wagon, summoning up Claire Hampton as an irresistible Papagena, and spawning any number of little Papagenos and Papagenas who (by mechanical contrivance) crawled across the stage in every direction. At the end, the wall of sound generated by WNO’s wonderful chorus (even in the small numbers required by this opera) brought this masterpiece to its end with stately, almost liturgical solemnity. Lothar Koenigs conducted with grace, lightness, depth and attention to detail, and the WNO orchestra played with its usual attack, panache and accuracy.