WNO - The Magic Flute - Milton Keynes Theatre (atgtickets.com)
Mozart’s The Magic
Flute has always been a crowd-pleaser because it was, basically, written to
please the crowds, and in that tradition Welsh National Opera’s revival offers
an evening of enchantment and sublime music for all.

By 1791 the composer
was ill and desperately short of money. Over the preceding couple of years he
had realised that his best chance of not starving lay in his co-operation with Emmanuel
Schikaneder, singer-manager and showman par excellence. Together they hatched
not a opera but a singspiel, a mix of
music and spoken word that was usually based on a fantastical theme. What
better bit of esoterica to work with than the Masonic ideals of love and
brotherhood to which they both subscribed? This boffo japefest was a world away from the
emperor’s court and Italianate earlier works such as Idomineo. The
sausage-scoffing suburban crowds of Vienna loved it from the start – it’s
burlesque meets the transcendent.

Caroline Chaney’s revived staging of Dominic
Cooke’s production is warm, joyous and witty, aided hugely by Jeremy
Sams’s bright English translation which adds shine and laughter to an
ill-matched-buddies-on-a-quest-to-get-the-gal plot that Schikaneder pillaged
from several sources and must have been already familiar to audiences at the
time of writing.


In a nutshell: the
mysterious Queen of the Night coaxes Tamino to rescue her beautiful daughter
Pamina from the grip of the evil enchanter Sarastro. With a magic flute and a
set of magic bells for protection he sets off on his journey aided by Papageno,
the feckless bird-catcher. But as they overcome a series of challenges, it
becomes apparent that all is not what it seems – will they complete their quest
and find true love?

All fair enough. But taken at face value The Magic Flute
presents modern directors and audiences with some teeth-grinding moments in a
tale that embraces some dodgy Masonic philosophy as well as a large and
ungenerous dollop of misogyny. This production attempt to nullify these
negatives with Surrealism. The set is pure Magritte – all doors and sky. Thus,
in a world where lions read newspapers, boys in sailor suits ride through the air on a
bike made out of a fish, and Sarastro commands a corps of Orangemen (literally)
 to do his bidding, everything is
uprooted from reality, so one idea is as daft as another. If Shakespeare can
get away with ‘Exit, pursued by a bear,’ in The Winter’s Tale, we can certainly
deal with ‘Enter, pursued by a lobster,’ here.


But, ultimately, it’s about Mozart’s music. Damian
Iorio whips the WNO orchestra through the overture at such a breakneck pace you
wonder whether the 2hr 50min running time is an exaggeration, but as soon as
the principals appear it’s a smooth and mellifluous flight.

Mark Stone excels as Papageno, a part that
brings out not just his fine baritone and clear diction but his superb comic
timing, both sung and spoken. Clair Hampton’s Papagena is an equally wonderful
comic foil. Anita Watson’s sweetly innocent Pamina and Samantha Hay’s Queen of
the Night provide a running current of light and dark energy. Hay totally owns
both the famous arias, hitting the ‘Hofer highs’ with aplomb. James
Platt’s Sarastro is powerful but stolid and feels a little restricted in
characterisation by this production.


Ben Johnson’s Tamino is, to be honest, a disappointment. An
audience is rather like a baby duck we tend to latch on to the first thing we
see and follow it forever. This Tamino leads us nowhere. Fuzzy in diction and
with all the expression of a piece of four-by-two, Johnson appears to be
seriously miscast.


A mere cavil on a night of miracles, wonder and laughter.


Review by Quentin Fox