What do you seek from The Magic Flute? Truth? Enlightenment? Birdcatcher Papageno confesses he’s not really looking for wisdom. Sleep, food, drink – and possibly a wife – is all he’s after. I suspect the majority of the audience is with him. In Thomas Guthrie’s revival of Sir David McVicar’s sober 2003 production of Mozart’s Singspiel, it was the pantomime elements of the show which registered strongly, while the Masonic claptrap – “without a man, a woman cannot fulfil her destiny” – resonated a good deal less, greeted instead with nervous chuckles.

Siobhan Stagg (Pamina) and Sabine Devieilhe (The Queen of the Night) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Siobhan Stagg (Pamina) and Sabine Devieilhe (The Queen of the Night)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Women have no place pursuing knowledge in Sarastro’s patriarchal court. The Queen of the Night is an outsider, representing darkness and evil, Sarastro is the sun and Enlightenment. In the Speaker’s study, a little boy observes an orrery in action while a girl busies herself with needlepoint. Pamina has been abducted from her mother for her own good, her destiny being life with Tamino. It’s just a shame nobody ever decides to fill her in on these crucial details. While her prince is never more than a passive cardboard cutout, dutifully facing his trials for entry into the brotherhood armed with only a flute and a garrulous sidekick, Pamina is flesh and blood, challenging the norms on her quest for truth. Her journey is the greatest of the whole evening.

Act 2 finale © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Act 2 finale
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

John Macfarlane’s splendid sets enable us to move swiftly from the murk of the Queen of the Night’s dominions to the marble temple of Enlightenment, from crescent moon to giant sun. Paule Constable bathes the final hymn of praise in radiant sunlight. The coiling serpent threatening Tamino is deftly manipulated by puppeteers, while masks serve for the warthogs, vultures and tigers entranced by his music-making. In the pit, Julia Jones’ well-paced reading of Mozart’s score found just the right balance between weight and period punch.

Mauro Peter (Tamino) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Mauro Peter (Tamino)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Royal Opera often uses Flute to offer House debuts and there are four in the first of this double cast run – Tamino, Sarastro, the Queen of the Night and Papagena – yet it was the Papageno who stole the show. Roderick Williams’ birdcatcher is familiar from his appearances in Nicholas Hytner’s much-loved (and much-missed) ENO production – a real charmer whose final appeal to the ladies in the audience before threatening to hang himself once elicited a marriage proposal from the Coliseum’s upper circle! He’s just as lovable here, an Everyman who shares our flaws and our frustrations. Williams’ warm baritone is a perfect fit for the role, though it’s a shame he is upstaged in both his arias, first by a puppet hen, then by Harry Nicoll’s Priest, whose feet are enslaved to the jingle of Papageno’s magic bells in “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”. Williams was at his finest, though, with Siobhan Stagg’s plucky Pamina in “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” – essentially a love duet sung by people not in love with each other but with the very idea of love itself. Williams and Stagg sang with great tenderness and simplicity.

Roderick Williams (Papageno) and Siobhan Stagg (Pamina) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Roderick Williams (Papageno) and Siobhan Stagg (Pamina)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Aside from a slight wobble in Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl's”, Stagg, a company member at Deutsche Oper Berlin, sang beautifully, with poise and a notable darkness of tone. Her Tamino, Mauro Peter, had a slightly grainy quality to his tenor but sang with supple phrasing and easy top notes. For stratospheric top notes, however, Sabine Devieilhe’s Queen of the Night was superb value. Another debutant (long overdue), she provided all the vocal fireworks required, her top Fs in “Der Hölle Rache” detonated with crystalline precision. Mika Kares’ smooth bass gave Sarastro gravitas while, at the opposite end of the decorum spectrum, Christina Gansch’s feisty Papagena was more than a match for her birdcatcher. The three Ladies did not always blend perfectly, with the occasional spot of awkward intonation. Peter Bronder’s creepy Monostatos played up the comedy well, blustering well, accompanied by his twinkle-toed periwigged entourage.

Whether it’s Enlightenment or knockabout comedy you’re after, this spirited revival is a real audience-pleaser.