A revival of Simon McBurney's excellent 2013 production of The Magic Flute was an ideal start to English National Opera's new year, proving that there is still plenty to be found in the most popular works in the repertory, the discovery of which does not necessarily leave director at odds with audience. McBurney's production is visually striking, combining a clean, uncluttered set with some stunning animations and a superb chalkboard background, created in 'real time' on stage. A glass cubicle just off-stage right shows the creation of various miscellaneous stage noises, ranging from bottle clinking to bladder-relief. It is not without its flaws; the exposed and raised pit allows for an unusual performer/orchestra interaction, but there were moments when the arrival and departure of players drew attention away from both stage and music.

Peter Coleman-Wright (Papageno) © ENO | Robbie Jack
Peter Coleman-Wright (Papageno)
© ENO | Robbie Jack

This also proved to be another strong cast for ENO, which has had a number of high profile successes in that regard this season. Lucy Crowe as Pamina was exhilarating from the moment she appeared, displaying a freshness and purity of voice that never waned. Her vocal versatility – an ease at the higher register, careful breath control – was complemented by an innate emotional colouring of the voice. This was most clearly on show in the most moving aria of the opera, "Ach, ich fühl's", where the agony and anger of heartbreak darkened her voice, in contrast to the radiant ecstasy in her reunion with Tamino. In many respects, this is what might be deemed a "coming of age" role and Crowe demonstrated this transition from girlhood to womanhood meticulously.

Allan Clayton's Tamino was of an equally high calibre, deploying a fine ringing quality throughout the performance. He was slightly too blunt early on, but soon settled and delivered more nuance to balance his force. I was not always convinced of his royal blood, but this may have been because his camaraderie with Papageno was so relaxed and easy.

Ambur Braid (The Queen of the Night) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) © ENO | Robbie Jack
Ambur Braid (The Queen of the Night) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina)
© ENO | Robbie Jack

McBurney's interpretation of an older Papageno, sung by Peter Coleman-Wright, left me conflicted. On the one hand, age lends greater pathos to the character – desperation for a wife given more bite in a fifty year old bird-catcher. Yet there is an essential youth to the character at odds with the world-weary version with which we were presented. Coleman-Wright was slow to warm up, sounding slightly worn in the first half and with melody sometimes giving way to simply declamatory moments. Act II saw him on better vocal and dramatic form: he brought out the inherent fun of the role and his "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" combined a jaunty whimsy with genuine yearning.

The theme of contrasts in the work are at their most obvious in the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, here sung by Ambur Braid and James Creswell respectively. Braid, hunched and wheelchair-bound, was a visual representation of the corruption of evil, which worked well next to the crispness of Creswell's straight-backed high priest. Braid's "Der Hölle Rache" was slightly forced and her top notes were not entirely comfortable, but I have heard far worse. Creswell's bass has a warmth that made him perfect for Sarastro. Powerful, but never overstated, his arias "O Isis und Osiris" and "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" were sedately mellifluous.

Allan Clayton (Tamino) © ENO | Robbie Jack
Allan Clayton (Tamino)
© ENO | Robbie Jack

Monostatos is a thankless role to sing (the lamentable pantomime booing at the curtain call showed that), but John Graham-Hall sang it well, bringing an appropriate – or inappropriate – lust to "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden".

The first of the opera's Masonic trios, the Three Ladies sung by Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young and Rachael Lloyd, were in harmony and offered some of the earliest humour of the evening with a delightfully catty (and physical) battle over the horizontal Tamino, whilst the Three Spirits, played by three youngsters in terrifyingly wizened costumes sung and waved their walking sticks with gusto.

The real star of the performance was Mark Wigglesworth, who gave a sensational interpretation of the score. One of the traps of The Magic Flute is it can either sound too comic, at the expense of the greater gravity of the piece, or it is simply too grey and staid, neglecting the lightness of Mozart's humour. Wigglesworth drew a perfect balance from his orchestra. Having already proven himself in Shostakovich and Verdi this season, his third success in Mozart demonstrated that ENO is fortunate to have him.

As for the ENO chorus, the occasional nervous acting from one or two aside, they combined hearty volume with utter Mozartian melody. I suggest those in favour of reducing it nip down to see the next performance and consider the damage that could be done to this well-honed instrument.

****1