When I saw Hytner's "classic" production of The Magic Flute last season, I was mystified as to its popularity - a straighter, less probing staging it would be hard to imagine, and the set literally creaked and groaned. This new McBurney production is a real step up in terms of theatricality, interpretation, and crucially for this opera, sense of fun. The music of The Magic Flute is of course glorious, but the story has rarely made as much sense as here - this is a major addition to the ENO's roster of productions, and I look forward to seeing it again in coming seasons.
Die Zauberflöte is a far more problematic piece than its popularity suggests. The main issues lie in the libretto. Tamino, the "hero" of the piece, has essentially no autonomy and so in most productions doesn't have an engaging dramatic arc. He faithfully carries out every order he gets from the authority figures in the piece - first from the Queen of the Night, then from the Speaker, then from Sarastro. Every problem in the opera is solved by Deus ex Machina devices (the magic flute and the magic bells) rather than by the characters' ingenuity, moral fortitude or bravery - the fact that each object is used so often means that the moral message of the piece is progressively weakened and undermined. Pamina does slightly more in the way of decision making and action, but her choices are also very prescribed. Even Papageno, the linchpin (and real protagonist) of the opera, doesn't get many choices, but he at least goes on a clear moral and spiritual journey. I like the moral flip that we are supposed to make midway - we make an assumption about the forces of good and bad during the first few scenes which is subsequently subverted and then inverted as the opera progresses. But I've never really bought the idea of Die Zauberflöte as being a monument to glorify Freemasonry. The plot is so abstruse in the second act and Sarastro's shadowy cadre so morally ambiguous, that it's hard to imagine that Mozart seriously intended this opera as an affirmation of the Enlightenment values which the Freemasons claim to embody. Sarastro's music may be noble and clearheaded, but I wonder how many people really feel that the ending is a moral victory, or that it's obvious that Tamino has achieved something worthwhile.
In Simon McBurney's production, the overture starts before the lights have dimmed. The pit is partially raised so that we see all the orchestral musicians - it feels ramshackle and intimate and signals a sincere interest to marry not just stage and pit, but musicians and audience also. At the side of a stage is a puppet theatre with a film camera that projects the live puppetry onto the stage, expanded to fantastic size. A gaggle of performers sit at the side of the pit and it's not initially clear what they're for. At the appearance of Papageno, they transform into a flock of birds in the most simple and therefore wondrous manner possible. Every time Papageno plays his pipes there's a lovely cascade of tweets and cuckoos, nature exploding into song at the enchanting sound of this instrument. Sound effects abound throughout the spoken dialogue which, with the moody, stark lighting, engender a much darker atmosphere than is usually imagined in this opera. There's almost too much to mention on the design side, and it's wonderful to see direction, set designs (Michael Levine), lighting designs (Jean Kalman) and video designs (Finn Ross) all working so closely together - the whole conception has a satisfying unity. The production doesn't quite sustain the sheer density of beautiful ideas that are packed into the first 20 minutes, and not everything works perfectly - often the delay on the camera relay was too great for instance and the sequences that were timed to the music just didn't come off. But remarkably, this very strong visual aesthetic never once overpowers the story telling and drama, and in fact helps make it one of the clearest production of The Magic Flute I've ever seen. Part of this is also in the English translation - there are a lot of very helpful additions that flesh out the story, update the comedy, and try to make more sense of the undertones in the opera. It's a risk, but it pays off.
The Queen of The Night is depicted as an old lady, rapidly decaying with age throughout her three scenes - first brandishing a walking stick during her opening aria, then pushed in on a wheelchair for "Der Hölle Rache", and finally she appears as a dessicated, decrepit shadow, just as she is vanquished. Pamina is not the meek vision of innocent youth and radiant femininity that we often see her portrayed as - she has more temperament here and there are moments when she is almost as commanding as her mother. Tamino is his usual bland self unfortunately, and a weak point is his first vision of Pamina from the Three Ladies (a tricky point in the drama to be sure) - he barely looks at the portrait and his rapturous overtures seem jarringly sudden. The actual staging of this part is exceptionally beautiful however - Pamina's subtly moving (video) portrait is projected onto a gently waving sheet held out by one of the Ladies - another really magical moment. The Three Boys here already look ancient, their wisdom eerily advanced for beings who are meant to be children. Sarastro's organisation is appealingly sinister but never cartoonish or sober to the point of dullness. Roland Wood's Papageno is the clear emotional and comedic centre of the show, holding the story together and providing some much needed earthiness to the exalted machinations of the rest of the plot. I loved that his hair was matted with flecks of bird shit - little details like this make a production live. The final trials for Tamino and Pamina, traditionally another place where the drama of this opera falters, actually seem like trials here - huge projections with thunderous sound are used to create the perils that the power of the magic flute then overcomes - this simple delay in when the music starts makes this piece of the narrative so much clearer and more effective.
The cast are all decent, and there are a couple of exceptional performances. Roland Wood has already been mentioned as Papageno - his grimly comic attitude, and excellent singing make him a pleasure to watch. James Creswell is in luxuriantly rounded voice as Sarastro, the timbre even right to the bottom of the range. The night I went, as the Queen of the Night Cornelia Götz sang the most accurately tuned staccati in alt I've ever heard, but the middle voice where the role mainly sits is extremely underpowered by comparison. She has the smallest voice of all the cast members which never quite seems right in this fire spitting role. Devon Guthrie's Pamina has endearing moments and is basically good, but some smudgey legato lines fail to make her character's crystalline music reverberate with the poignance that it can. Ben Johnson's Tamino is musically also fine, but physically and dramatically clumsy. The Three Ladies of Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldridge make a beautifully coordinated team. Conductor Gergely Madaras is this production's weakest link - nothing he does is bad exactly, but this is a bland, undifferentiated view of this most colourful of scores. One laments again the recent passing of Mackerras and Davis who still had so much to say in this music, always with such singular character.
All in all this is a most recommendable production of this opera - traditionalists and progressives will both find much to enjoy here.