Two key ingredients are required for a successful operatic revival: a production of sufficient interest to withstand repeated viewing and a strong cast to make it come alive. With its latest incarnation of Die Zauberflöte, the Royal Opera ticks both boxes. David McVicar’s broadly traditional production treats Mozart’s Singspiel soberly, but with a deft comic touch, while a cast packed with debuts – many of them excellent – made this an evening almost as stellar as the Queen of the Night’s starfield.

Anna Siminska (Queen of the Night) © Mark Douet | ROH
Anna Siminska (Queen of the Night)
© Mark Douet | ROH

McVicar’s production doesn’t shy away from the misogyny which runs through the opera. Set in the Age of Enlightenment, the Order of Isis and Osiris is a depiction of a Masonic Order, with Sarastro as Grand Master. Women are not admitted to ‘the brotherhood’. Pamina is abducted by Sarastro to protect her from her own mother, the vengeful Queen of the Night, who is out to regain the sevenfold circle of the sun her husband gave to the Order. Pamina is even instructed by Sarastro that man must guide her heart, otherwise “every woman tends to overstep her natural sphere”. It makes for uncomfortable viewing. Both Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were Masons and the opera could be seen as a defence of Freemasonry. 

Yet in admitting Pamina into the brotherhood at the end, were they actually challenging Masonic law? Tamino, the prince sent by the Queen to rescue her daughter, is a passive hero, believing everything he’s told. It’s Pamina who leads Tamino through the trials of fire and water – in direct contradiction of Sarastro’s instruction that women must be guided by men.

Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro) and Janai Brugger (Pamina) © Mark Douet | ROH
Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro) and Janai Brugger (Pamina)
© Mark Douet | ROH
Pamina turns out to be the real hero. Making her Royal Opera debut, Janai Brugger made a strong impression in the role, her creamy soprano well inflected in the aria “Ach ich fühls”, her very fast vibrato adding to her sense of vulnerability. She brought a sense of pathos and calm dignity. Anna Siminska, as her mother, is required to do little acting beyond vengeful gestures and dagger clutching, given no help whatsoever in the most undramatic entrances. However, her two arias are absolute killers, with demanding coloratura and staccato high notes which leap up to top F in both. Siminska was technically more accomplished in the more famous “Der Hölle Rache”, bringing the anticipated storm of applause.

Their male counterparts were as strong. It was great to hear Toby Spence in heroic voice as Tamino, ardently sung and sympathetically acted given that he’s not given a lot to do other than look stoic in the face of his trial of silence. Sarastro rarely steals the vocal honours, yet Georg Zeppenfeld was luxury casting. Another House debutant, he impressed enormously with a rock solid bass that is extremely beautiful in tone, with great liquidity in his long phrasing. It helped that McVicar, returning to direct this revival, presents Sarastro as no brutal bully, but a wise, paternal figure who, at the opera’s conclusion, departs into the wings to take up the flute… a true man of enlightenment.

Toby Spence (Tamino) © Mark Douet | ROH
Toby Spence (Tamino)
© Mark Douet | ROH

Mozart’s Singspiel is part quest, part pantomime. Designed as popular Volkstheater, Papageno the birdcatcher, played by Schikaneder at the première, is the comic counterfoil for the prince. His motives and music are simpler and he’s the one character to break the fourth wall and appeal directly to the audience. Both he and Pamina threaten suicide, yet it’s Papageno’s plight which moves the most: he’s not seeking enlightenment, just a Papagena. Austrian baritone Markus Werba, relishing the recitatives and the comic byplay, offered an endearing birdcatcher. Each of his arias hit the spot, but the evening’s highlight was his duet with Pamina, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”. Werba and Brugger wound their voices around each other’s serenely… a moment of balm. Werba found his match in a delightful Papagena from Rhian Lois. Colin Judson’s Monostatos, not the ‘wicked Moor’ of the libretto but a slippery lecher, was nimble, both vocally and on his feet.

Markus Werba (Papageno) © Mark Douet | ROH
Markus Werba (Papageno)
© Mark Douet | ROH

John Macfarlane’s set transforms from the gloom of the Queen’s dominions to the temple of Enlightenment, sun-kissed in the final hymn of praise. The monstrous serpent threatening Tamino as the curtain rises is dextrously handled by puppeteers and the animals charmed by his magic flute aren’t the usual cutesy suspects, but include vultures and doddery warthogs among their number.

Zippy tempi from Cornelius Meister – wind chords rapping at the door in the overture – didn’t always result in tight co-ordination between pit and stage, but the intention was admirable. Lithe strings and characterful woodwind solos stood out, particularly the chattering piccolo in Monostatos’ aria, as a splendid evening fled past all too quickly.

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