One of the best known Mozart operas, The Magic Flute may, on the face of it, be easy listening, but both musically and theatrically this is far from being the case. Full credit, then, to English translator Jeremy Sams and director Dominic Cooke for their surrealist take on Mozart’s gem, for this WNO production, first performed in 2005, is fun without being frivolous. Buried beneath the cacophony of bird sounds, true lovers tiffs and misunderstandings, a strange cult with high ideals, a wicked mother (makes a change from the classic wicked stepmother) et al are themes and truisms that fit today’s ethos in much the same way as they did in1791 Vienna society where the opera was first performed.
There is symbolism aplenty in this tale of Tamino, who is attacked by a monster (the WNO monster is to my mind more reminiscent of the lobster in Alice in Wonderland than Salvador Dali to whom the likeness has been attributed), and saved from death by three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night. Aided and abetted by the bird catcher Papageno and a flute with magical powers, Tamino sets off to find and rescue Pamina, the Queen’s daughter who has been kidnapped, with attempted rape thrown in for good measure, by the villain Monostatos by order of Sarastro, leader of a weird cult whose orange robes are akin to those worn by Buddhists. The background of mysticism and cult is presented throughout in various ways – the power of three being most prominent. Walls surrounding the set have three doors on three sides, the Queen’s attendants are three ladies, three pageboys lead Tamino and Papageno to Pamina and – with an overt nod to the Masonic – the number three is pinpointed in the final backdrop.
It’s all good clean fun with plenty of comedy, although for a writer of such high calibre why does Sams use clichés such as Monostatos’s statement that “All men have appetites” (thanks, we know) in Act II? While Tamino’s quest and how he wins through with the help of the magic flute of the title are ostensibly the central plot, running parallel is the enchanting story of Papageno, the feathered bird catcher who lives in a hut in the woods and whose idea of heaven is hearth and home with the girl of his dreams and a clutch of little Papagenos. Jacques Imbrailo brings not only expertise and a witty characterization to this pivotal role, but an evident relish for the part which was sung by librettist Schikaneder himself when the opera was first performed. Stepping up into the role of Papageno’s sweetheart Papagena on the night I was in the audience was Paula Greenwood, cover for Claire Hampton, who was ill. Greenwood, a slender and sparky blonde member of the chorus whose clear soprano and perky style are admirably suited to the role, is definitely one to watch.
Tenor Benjamin Hulett, who makes his Glyndebourne debut this year in Handel’s Saul, is on form as Tamino, and outstanding in the duets with Pamina, sung by Anita Watson (in the role previously sung this season by Sophie Bevan) in Act II. Scott Wilde as a white-suited Sarastro, Tamino’s opposite number, fails to impress, however, looking as if he might be more at home on a beach in the Bahamas. The demanding role of the Queen of the Night is always exciting to watch and to listen to, with the top F that even the most accomplished soprano fears. Samantha Hay’s spectacular coloratura makes it a privilege to be in the audience.
Magic Flute is at Venue Cymru,. March 12, 13 and is also also part of WNO’s summer season