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The Magic Flute at ENO

Location: London Coliseum, London
Event Date: October 2012
Review Date: 13th October 2012
Event URL:
Reviewed By: Hannah Templeton, King's College London
Review Citation: Hannah Templeton, review of The Magic Flute at ENO
Date Accessed: 29th July 2015

The Magic Flute , K.620, was Mozart’s only collaboration with actor and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. A singspiel conceived in the tradition of magic opera, it was premiered in Schikaneder’s suburban Theater auf der Wieden on 30th September 1791. Schikaneder’s productions attracted a wider audience demographic than court-sponsored productions, and his theatre was renowned for its novel special effects such as lighting, visual effects (such as trials of fire and water), trapdoors, and mechanical stage devices.

At the English National Opera’s most recent and final revival of Nicholas Hytner’s classic staging of The Magic Flute, also the production’s 25th anniversary, the audience was similarly delighted with the staging effects that have been a much-loved part of Hytner’s production since its premiere in 1988. While trapdoors and atmospheric lighting are perhaps no longer novel in the twenty-first century, they still delighted the audience which ranged from opera veterans to young families. Characters and props appearing or disappearing through a trap door, George Fay’s live doves, the dancing bears, and Papageno and Papagena’s descent from the ceiling in their nest during the Pa-Pa-Pa duet of Act 2 were particularly memorable moments. The simplicity of Bob Crowley’s set designs emphasised the contrasts between ‘light and dark’ throughout the opera, which were often accompanied by thunderclaps and lightening. The striking Egyptian hieroglyphic sets and costumes were also particularly effective against the plain background.

That the opera was written for a theatre accessible to a wider range of the Viennese public suggests that Mozart intended The Magic Flute’s ‘Enlightened’ values to be accessed and understood by everyone. While the lower ranks of society could attend this theatre, Mozart’s letter to his wife Constanze of the 14th October 1791 recounted that his colleague Antonio Salieri had praised the work as a ‘grand opera, worthy to be performed for the grandest festival and before the greatest monarch, and that [he] would often go to see it’. This diversity was paralleled at the Coliseum. It was encouraging – not least in the context of the ENO’s recent ‘dress down for the opera’ campaign – to see the comparatively wide audience demographic, even in the stalls.

Another letter from Mozart to Constanze, from 8th-9th October 1791, suggests that Mozart expected his audience to take heed and learn something from his opera. Indeed, he wrote in disbelief of a gentleman audience member who had continuously laughed throughout the performance, even during the solemn scenes at the start of the second act. This resulted in Mozart calling the gentleman a ‘Papageno’ and leaving the box. Hytner’s production was particularly effective in conveying the opera’s important messages. When moralising, for example about a ‘world of love [being] created if lying tongues would cease’ in Act 1’s Hm Hm Hm Hm, the cast often stood facing out to the audience. This emphasis, combined with Mozart’s unison scoring in such moments and the clarity of the cast’s diction, ensured the moral messages were well transmitted.

While The Magic Flute contains many admirable sentiments for a modern audience, it was interesting to see how the more outdated messages were adapted and dealt with. A standard and expected change to modern performances is that Monastatos is no longer depicted as a Moor. Instead Adrian Thompson achieved a lascivious presence as Monastatos, combined with thinning hair and excessive pale make-up. His performance was outstanding, provoking pantomime-like ‘booing’ from the audience during his applause. On the other hand, the references to gender remained in the production. Moments such as Sarastro’s advice that a woman ‘needs a man to guide her’, and a priest’s advice to learn ‘how women get their way when men believe in what they say’ were met with enthusiastic humour – perhaps because they are so obviously outdated.

Jeremy Sams’s witty English translation undoubtedly contributed to the accessibility of Hytner’s production. Attending The Magic Flute in English, though, is surely comparable to the Viennese attending a German opera. In the eighteenth century the operatic tradition throughout Europe was predominately Italian, and The Magic Flute is one of only seven Mozart operas written in German. Productions of opera in the vernacular present, both then and now, a foundation for communication and accessibility. Particularly amusing are the colloquialisms that, when watching an opera in their native language, audiences are able to engage with. Sams’s translation of the dialogue was easily adapted to cater for Duncan Rock’s Australian Papageno, who called Papagena a ‘miserable old Sheila’ and several male characters ‘mate’. Rhian Lois’s Welsh Papagena (who initially appeared as a tea-lady) was equally convincing and appreciated by the audience. Other reviewers have met these adaptations to the dialogue with mixed enthusiasm. However, perhaps altering the script slightly, according to individual singers, personalises the production in a similar way to Mozart’s. After all, Mozart did construct each character, and even the production as a whole, for specific friends, colleagues, and Schikaneder’s theatre. The original production also included references to contemporary events: the three boys, who act as guides to Tamino and Papageno, descended in a mock-up of a hot air balloon in reference to balloonist Jean Pierre Blanchard’s 1791 flight over Vienna.

The recent Hytner revival boasted an excellent cast: the on-stage ensemble and clarity of the singing was so good that the surtitles were largely unnecessary. The ensemble between the Three Ladies (Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Deborah Davison) was particularly crisp, and their humourous stage-presence captivated the audience. This was more impressive still given that Davison had stepped in at short notice as the Third Lady. Equally notable were Robert McPherson’s Tamino (ENO debut) and Elena Xanthoudakis’s Pamina. Robert Lloyd’s Sarastro was performed beautifully, the sonority of his lowest notes spine-tingling at times.   

While Tamino and Pamina are perhaps the opera’s two main characters, Rock’s Papageno arguably became the main focus of the production. This was certainly the case if judged by audience-reaction: he proved the most popular, receiving the biggest round of applause and cheers. The most impressive vocal performance, though, came from Kathryn Lewek (ENO debut) who performed both of the Queen of the Night’s virtuosic arias with effortless technical facility. Both received prolonged applause during the performance and Lewek was also cheered enthusiastically at her curtain call.   

Conductor Nicholas Collon also made his ENO debut, delivering energetic and lively tempi throughout the performance – the high standard of which was set in the Overture. If, occasionally, the ensemble between the orchestra and the singers during the pick-ups was slightly untidy, this did not detract in the least from the quality of the playing. Particularly deserving of mention are the flautist and celeste player: Tamino’s magic flute and Papageno’s magic bells were performed flawlessly.  

Traditional Mozart biography often emphasises the composer’s declining success in his latter years, gauged largely by his financial difficulties, apparently due to a loss of interest on the part of the Viennese public. However, that The Magic Flute was the most successful singspiel of its day, receiving 100 performances in its first year alone, is merely one confirmation of Mozart’s popularity and success as a composer towards the end of his life. The opera continues to work extremely well with very little ‘modernisation’ in terms of characterisation and staging – arguably on account of its mythical plot – as Hytner’s production has demonstrated. Popular throughout the twenty-five years of its circulation, the final revival of Hytner’s The Magic Flute has again been extremely successful and will be very much missed from the repertoire.

The Magic Flute is at the London Coliseum, 13 September to 18 October 2012.


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