In a world of wacky opera plots, surely Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte takes the biscuit? Granted it’s one of his most beloved operas, and true, it does brim with fun characters, divine melodies and two fiendishly difficult arias, but none of that negates the fact that it possesses a decidedly silly plot. For where else would the most vacillating of heroes end up with a brainless bird-catcher to rescue his damsel in distress? Said lady has been abducted by a tyrannical Freemason because he disapproves of her mother, a vengeful queen who, not unreasonably, wants to murder her daughter’s captor but instead of doing it herself curses her daughter to do so.

Anna Devin (Pamina) with Nicholas O'Neill, Sean Hughes and Oran Murphy (Three Boys)
© Pat Redmond

Director Caroline Staunton set Irish National Opera's production in 1891, a hundred years after the first performance, her rationale being to assess “the consequences of Enlightenment ideology which runs through Schikaneder’s libretto”. This production certainly does raise a few questions regarding the story’s dismissive attitude of women. Overall, the Victorian re-imagining doesn’t detract from the opera, though the downplaying of its Masonic element only serves to heighten the irrationality of Sarastro’s temple and trials. Why would a Victorian gentleman in rather lurid riding coat and top hat be so obsessed with the cult of Isis and Osiris that he would have priests and a temple dedicated to them?

Ciaran Bagnall’s designs were very effective: the opening forest shrouded in fog conjured up a magical atmosphere, while Sarastro’s temple was part symbolic ovals and circles for the ceiling and upper sections while the lower part was filled with bookcases and parquet flooring. Katie Davenport’s costumes were spot on too: Pamina was becomingly decked in a riding cape, Tamino in tweed and Papageno in a wonderful straw costume. The domineering Sarastro was immaculately dressed in a red riding coat, top hat and a hunting crop. His foot servants donned white tie and tails and the women were traditional Victorian maids. The Queen of the Night mutated between a witch with horns to a pale, snake-like figure.

Gavan Ring (Papageno) Nick Pritchard (Tamino) and Rachel Croash (First Lady)
© Pat Redmond

The singing ranged from the good to the very good. Anna Devin brought her Pamina vividly to life with her pearly voice and lively acting. There was a real dynamic between her and Papageno in their duet aria as they tried to sneak out of Sarastro’s temple unnoticed while her lamentation on Tamino’s perceived rejection in Act 2 (“Ach, ich fühl's”) was meltingly sung.

Nick Pritchard was a convincing Tamino, the sweet heft of his tenor carrying easily to the back of the theatre. His acting of this indecisive hero was charmingly accomplished as he brought out the dilemma of whom to believe in order to win the fair Pamina: a potential mother-in-law witch or a tyrannical abductor with a taste for Egyptian mysticism.

It was Gavan Ring, singing Papageno who stole show last night. Playing up the vaudeville humour of his part to the full, Ring brought life and joy whenever he was around. His voice was terrifically expressive and versatile, switching from bluster to cowering terror in an instant. There was a certain poignancy for Ring in singing this role, as it marks his final role as a baritone as he transitions to singing tenor. His other half, Papagena, was brought wonderfully to life by soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh.

Lukas Jakobski (Sarastro) and Anna Devin (Pamina)
© Pat Redmond

Polish bass Lukas Jakobski, measuring over six foot six, physically and metaphorically towered over everyone else, his strong voice issuing threat and command. He’s a young Sarastro and while his famously low notes were well executed, he lacked a certain gravitas that comes with age. Audrey Luna was a less than convincing Queen of the Night. Appearing more nervous than commanding, her intonation in her notorious high moments was not always spot on.

The Three Ladies (sung by Rachel Croash, Sarah Richmond and Raphaela Mangan) were excellently portrayed, imbuing their characters with plenty of coquetry and fun. Much kudos goes to the Three Boys who did terrifically well guiding our hapless hero. The chorus sang lustily and well in Sarastro’s strange temple, dressed as they were as servants and maids.

Conductor Peter Whelan elicited a fine, taut performance from the Irish Chamber Orchestra, imbuing the score with vim and vigour in the robust moments and warm lyricism in the quieter parts. I don’t think I have ever heard the overture taken at quite such a pace, but it did possess that nervous energy that gave me a frisson of excitement. Overall, this was an enjoyable, satisfying performance that revelled in the opera’s many quirky moments.