Mozart’s famous singspiel, with its well-known plot, charming characters, and memorable arias, can be both an easy win and a difficult one to approach. Everyone has heard about The Magic Flute, and opera aficionados are likely to have seen and appreciated multiple renditions in the past, and therefore it takes a particular amount of effort and ingenuity to bring it once again to the stage in a form still capable of surprising and amazing. WNO took the approach of treating it in a humorous, upbeat manner, with visuals that might have come out of a surrealist painting and animated performances from its entire cast. From the very beginning, as the monster pursuing Tamino takes the form of an oversized shrimp, we are forewarned that a subtle undercurrent of surreal humour is going to be present throughout this production. That undercurrent remains throughout, even in the more serious and poignant moments; it turns out to be a successful choice, contributing significantly in keeping the audience engaged and adding a layer of finesse to the whole performance. Nonetheless, it perhaps detracts somewhat from the one or two moments that could have been left starkly serious; the contrast with the self-aware, amused nature of the rest of the performance would have added further weight to those scenes. Nonetheless, the idea of presenting the production as amused and amusing is well in tune with its original spirit and with the charming preciosity of Mozart’s music.
Being a singspiel rather than an opera proper, The Magic Flute requires most of its performance to act prose rather than just sing; some of them are more comfortable with this prospect than others, and as a result some performances come across slightly stiff. Anita Watson delivers a smooth and full-bodied rendition as Pamina (her duet with Papageno is a particular pleasure), but appears less convinced, and less convincing, in the prose sections. Ben Johnson is a graceful Tamino, embracing the subtly humorous approach to the production and tinging with a welcome hint of hesitation those sections of his part most at risk of coming across as pompous. Mark Stone as Papageno steals the scene just as much as his character is meant to do in the script; his sung delivery is impressively clean and nuanced, and his physical acting is spot-on, with great vivacity to it and a near-perfect comedic timing. James Platt is an imposing and subtly disquieting Sarastro, showcasing his impressive lower range with poignancy and confidence; the solemnity of his stage presence is countermanded by the vaguely sinister air permeating his interactions with the choir. Particular credit must be given to Anna Siminska as the Queen of the Night: this is a part of notoriously huge technical difficulty, which often makes it necessary to sacrifice expressiveness in favour of musical precision. Not so with Siminska, which delivers her part with deceptive ease while still preserving a vivid stage presence, making her scenes, particularly in the second act, some of the most memorable moments of this production. Howard Kirk as Monostatos is also to be noted for his effective acting, making his character comedically villainous and drawing more than a chuckle from the audience. A special mention goes to Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek and Emma Carrington as the Three Ladies, who are partly responsible for opening the production on some very strong early scenes and have great stage chemistry with each other.
The Masonic subtext of The Magic Flute is not lost on this production and symbolism, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, is interspersed everywhere in the staging, set designs, and costumes. While it is only towards the end that an All-Seeing Eye makes an open appearance, the little esoteric nods contribute to building a climate of vague menace around Sarastro and his brotherhood, in spite of the statements of the characters. This is also achieved through a clever depiction of the power imbalance between Sarastro and the chorus of his followers, who are almost always portrayed on a far lower level than him, peeking through from trapdoors in the floor (and shutting the lids on themselves when they are done singing). The costumes and the set designs have something of a Magritte painting mood to them, which fits well with the light-hearted, but at the same time perturbing, nature of this work.
For a work that has had more incarnations than one can count, this is a new take that still comes across as fresh and relevant. It is not as daring as other WNO productions in recent years, but it strikes a good balance between a classical approach and an experimental one.
WMC until March 1 then touring