The Magic Flute
English National Opera, 28th March 2019
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.
Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.
But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.
Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.
Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.
Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura, rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.
Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.
Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.
Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.
The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.
It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.
Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.
However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.
I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.
And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.
Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.