The first night of English National Opera’s The Magic Flute – its third revival of Simon McBurney’s production – ended on a sombre note, with a dedication by McBurney to Stephen Jeffreys, recently deceased, whose witty translation of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto is one of the strong points of the production. The revival was otherwise a joyful affair; McBurney’s production, with its slightly industrial, feel does not seek to over-egg the Masonic symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel, nor does it occlude the story in the coils of Regietheater. Instead, we have a gleeful approach which combines traditional simplicity with technical tricks of the trade.

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) © Donald Cooper
Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina)
© Donald Cooper

McBurney’s production exposes some of the artifice of the theatre and incorporates it into the show; a glass box on one side of the stage contains a sound engineer at work on a variety of effects (including Papageno relieving himself into a bottle!) and on the other side, another crew member scribbles on a blackboard which is then projected onto the stage. The use of video can be thrilling and is particularly effective during the trials of Act 2, when the entire stage seems to be devoured in flames. A large snake is projected at the start of the first act, while the exterior of Sarastro's three-temple complex is represented by a giant shelf of books; those entitled Reason and Nature draw back, and then slam forward to deny him entry. The giant adjustable platform that dominates the centre of the stage is less loveable, but is functional enough, allowing for McBurney to play around with levels to facilitate furtive behaviour and rather neatly transforms into a large table for Sarastro’s corporate assembly in Act 2. The production is lifted by the emphasis that McBurney and revival director Josie Daxter place on cast direction; there’s a notable absence of wooden acting and the chorus are never left at a loose end.

Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) © Donald Cooper
Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina)
© Donald Cooper

The opportunity to hear Lucy Crowe sing Pamina is enough to justify a ticket; her warm soprano is easily big enough for the size of the Coliseum, and the artistry that she displayed – phrases which bloomed, clean ventures into the higher register, purity of tone – made her performance a delight. She’s a consummate vocal actress too, who injected her aria “Ach, ich fühl's” with so much feeling that it became the highlight of the second half. Rupert Charlesworth was very much a princely Tamino, a commanding heroic figure with a butch tenor to match. On first night, he seemed to take a little time to warm up, the top of the voice sounding slightly pinched, but he relaxed as the performance developed and the sense of Tamino’s journey to enlightenment was tangible in his interpretation.

Thomas Oliemans (Papageno) © Donald Cooper
Thomas Oliemans (Papageno)
© Donald Cooper

Thomas Oliemans was a boisterous, enjoyably cack-handed Papageno who, despite bringing out the laughs, deftly managed to tap into the character’s loneliness. Brindley Sherratt’s plush bass was on magnificent display as Sarastro, totally secure in his two major arias. The Queen of the Night is, in this production, so withered by evil that she is virtually wheelchair-bound; while Julia Bauer’s coloratura was largely sound, her voice was far too small for the theatre and failed to leave an impression. Rowan Pierce was a perky Papagena and Jonathan Lemalu’s bass was on fine form as the Speaker. Daniel Norman was an appropriately unpleasant Monostatos, giving a skin-crawling account of the role.

The ENO Chorus sang with its usual commitment, and Ben Gernon drew an energetic performance from the pit, albeit one that occasionally missed the nuance of Mozart’s score. Overall, an enjoyable evening that shows that McBurney’s production hasn’t grown stale yet.

****1