Friday 14 September 2012

The Magic Flute – ENO, Coliseum

This run of ten performances marks the final outing of the (then) young Nicholas Hytner's apparently seminal 1988 production of W.A.Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. And, much admired though the production might have been, on this showing it doesn't feel that this retirement is premature.

It is difficult to assess the impact of a production or situate it in its proper context for a critic who was eleven when it premièred. Any innovations it may have brought to bear on opera, any social relevance it might have once had – I think I spotted a sole “topical” reference to Section 28, which was also introduced in 1988 – are now veritable antiques in theatre terms.

Of course, this shouldn't matter. One can only assess what is put in front of one in the moment. And yet, it was precisely what I did end up thinking about. Partly this might be a product of the publicity framing this farewell run. As press, we are handed pamphlets detailing the show's longevity, while it is sold to the public on the prospectus that this outstanding, long-running achievement is about to disappear forever. An operatic equivalent of those “You'll Miss Saigon” posters (also directed by Hytner, coincidentally) perhaps.

At the same time as it being hard to fathom what may have made an impact 25 years ago, it's also difficult to know what of the spirit of the much-loved original production remains. Many of the young principals now can barely have been out of nappies when it first opened.

All this anxiety abounds largely because worried I wasn't feeling suitably impressed last night. Of course, this could be down to a combination of raised expectations and taste. I have a horrible feeling it might also partly be down to the ravishing, pared-down performances of bits from Die Zauberflöte in Meine Faire Dame, which are still playing in the back of my head on a fairly regular basis.

None of which feels especially fair or helpful, so I shall get on with saying what this does do, and shall try to keep what I might have preferred it to do out of the way.

If you don't know the The Magic Flute (and I don't claim to be much of an expert), it's essentially the ridiculous, confected tale of how the young prince Tamino (Shawn Mathy), saved in a forest from a monstrous serpent, vows to go and rescue princess Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis) – with whom he falls in love immediately on the strength of her picture. Pamina is the daughter of The Queen of the Night (Catherine Young) and has been abducted by the naughty wizard Sarastro (Robert Lloyd), who has unaccountably left her in the care of rapey gaoler Monostatos (Adrian Thompson). Tamino is helped by the bird catcher Papageno (Duncan Rock), a happy-go-lucky singleton of limited aspirations.

Given opera's reputation for fearsome complexity, the plot is lower on twists than the average Hollywood blockbuster. There's one. That Sarastro turns out to be the good guy (if you like your “good guy” patriarchal, Teutonic and masonic) and the Queen of the Night, well, the clue's in the name, folks. The whole is either all utterly inconsequential, with less at stake than your average pantomime, or else a telling tract on the German Enlightenment to be mined for Freudian subtexts, post-colonial readings, French Revolutionary anxieties and the seeds of the Holocaust. Hytner has rather sat on the fence in this respect.

The production (designed by Bob Crowley in 1988) is set in that conveniently a-temporal Everywhen. It stands what look like a lot of Austrian or perhaps 1790s American volk, clothed mostly in tasteful Sunday Times supplement beiges and whites, in fromt of a large off-white fractured cyclorama. This periodically opens to reveal various bits of extra scene-settery (a big moon, a big tree, etc.), with the masonic Temple cunningly conjured by three extendible library stacks abutted with classical columns. And all the Masons have ponytails.

I daresay this was revelatory stuff 25 years ago, but now it looks like as stock an opera set as one could wish to see, with the odd echo of Robert Wilson here or foreshadowing of, well, most of Hytner's subsequently favoured stage-sets.

There is also plenty that is still charming about the piece, though. Obviously Mozart's Magic Flute is good, right? So it's got a pretty solid start. And Jeremy Sams's English text is spry, witty and droll (though not as pretty as the German). There are also some excellent live doves and amusing people-pretending-to-be-bears.

Re: the music itself. I don't know if it's a matter of taste, upbringing, inclination or habit, but for my money, the orchestra (and vocalists) at ENO always sound a bit more quiet than I'd like them to. Now, I don't know if this is down to where I'm sat (Stalls, centre of row N), what I'm used to (recorded music, heavily amplified gigs, headphones, miked singers and amplified instruments in theatres), or if it's just what I'd like more of. By very similar tokens, I thought the music could have been played faster and with a bit more attack. For the most part, this feels like a sweetly lyrical take a score that could as well be rendered sharply with painful mathematical precision. I think, on balance, I prefer that latter approach almost as much as I'm sure most other people wouldn't.

The singing is, of course, massively impressive. This sort of thing probably never occurs to a proper opera reviewer to mention. But, coming out of theatre-going for an evening, it is startling to be reminded what some people can do with the human voice. In opera terms, this is presumably a bit like commending actors for remembering all those lines: it should be a given. So, givens aside, what to make of the performers? Well, being a Singspiel rather than sung-through opera, there is regrettably also demand made on the singers to act. This is gamely undertaken in a spirit of Brechtian pantomime. At no stage is the point not getting across, and you couldn't really describe it as “bad acting”. More like “no acting at the requisite volume with all the emphases in the right place”. But as I've said, this is kind of a low-stakes production of a what can be seen as a fairly silly opera. We're just being asked to invest here. Rock's Papageno especially comes off so much as “Aussie Soap-Star playing Buttons” that he even gets audible audience responses (and the biggest laugh of the night). Though the night really belonged to Xanthoudakis's sweetly sung Pamina.

But there's something slightly hateful about finding such a glib, happy-seeming artefact dating from the height of the Thatcher years. I couldn't help wishing that there was some tangible hint of a critique of that dreadful decade, rather than some cosily “apolitical” (apart, possibly from the Section 28 dig) entertainment that a bunch of Tories could go along and watch with their vile views intact.

That said, I do wonder if The Magic Flute would ever be the opera from which to launch such an assault. (answer: it would be perfectly possible. All requires is the will.) It is, after all, rather a confused document of its own intentions. On one hand it has these terrific hymns to the Enlightenment, but they're sung by a bunch of Masons who dedicate them to the Egyptian gods Isis und Osiris while standing about in their wacky heiroglyph-heavy interiors. And, while in the programme Daniel Heartz gamely tries to persuade us that Mozart is “raising women to the level of equality and enlightment achieved by Pamina at the end of the opera” (an awkward sentiment in itself), the opera jovially invokes the threat of rape as an amusing plot point. A fact that I'm not sure Hytner's production does much with, other than possibly make yet more uncomfortable with its blithe acceptance and trivial stylings around it.

Of course I wonder if any of this critique is helpful, telling or relate-able. I don't suppose for a moment it would put off anyone with the money to afford the seat next to mine last night. And I do wonder if I've gone a bit far with the whole politics thing. But, one can only say what one sees, and sometimes one sees an opulent Tory meringue.

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