Last Updated on September 24, 2021
A Magic Flute For Our Times
How should a contemporary audience receive The Magic Flute? Mozart’s music is extraordinary, capable of conjuring up the darkest of emotions with a lightness of touch that is remarkable. But the narrative of this opera is superficially problematic and can be perceived as misogynistic, presenting the triumph of a patriarchal regime with women dismissed as irrational, emotionally-driven second-class citizens reliant on male dominance.
The Royal Opera are staging the 10th revival of David McVicar’s 2003 production which has been a mainstay of their repertory since it debuted. Seeing the opera in the aftermath of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the subsequent withdrawal of women from public life, it’s fascinating to see if and how the production is able to act as a mirror for this very live contemporary situation.
On the surface the Magic Flute’s story is a simple rescue narrative presented as a mythological fable with ancient Egyptian overtones. The Queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Christina Gansch’s performance gives life to Pamina’s story arc from naïve ingenue to a woman worthy of being treated as an equal by the men as she passes the test of constancy. She reaches her emotional apotheosis in the quartet “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück!” bringing a soaring lyricism to the rendition.
The Queen of the Night’s ladies-in-waiting, played with a matronly swagger by Anita Watson, Rachel Kelly and Gaynor Keeble, come across young Prince Tamino who is being attacked by a huge serpent, expertly realised by a team of on-stage puppeteers. The 3 ladies save Tamino and then show him a picture of Pamina with whom he subsequently falls in love (“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”). The lyric tenor part of Tamino is tricky to play as the character mostly just does what he is told, but in this big aria Daniel Behle doesn’t quite seize the moment and own the passion of Mozart’s melody.
The ladies then enlist the lovelorn Prince to save Pamina and The Queen of the Night promises Pamina’s hand to Tamino if he can execute the rescue (“O zittre nicht, mein Lieber Sohn”). Aleksandra Olczyk deserved the plaudits she received from the audience for this aria as well as for the second act’s incendiary “Der Hölle Rache”, one of the great operatic showcases. She delivered some of the most technically most demanding writing in opera faultlessly with its extended coloratura high range and made the journey from pleading mother to enraged she-demon credible.
The imprisoned Pamina has to fend off the unwanted amorous attention of Monostatos, Sarastro’s servant and a “wicked Moor”. McVicar’s production attempts to defuse the libretto’s crude racial stereotyping by turning the character into something of a comedy villain with a touch of Uncle Fester from the Addams Family about him in Peter Hoare’s spritely performance. But the lyric of “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” clearly articulates the sentiment that ‘white is beautiful’ and future productions will have to find a more nuanced way of addressing the issue.
Tamino is accompanied on his quest by the hapless bird-catcher Papageno whose totally reasonable objectives in life are to drink as much wine as he can and find a girlfriend/mate. Papageno is the beating heart of The Magic Flute bringing humour, and a sense of vulnerability to the opera. There is a sense that it is with the feckless bird-catcher that Mozart’s own sympathies lie having had the experience of navigating the struggles of being at first a court and then a freelance musician.
Peter Kellner as Papageno brings a welcome sense of humanity to the role without going too over the top with the comedic elements such as in the quartet “Hm hm hm hm” when he has had a padlock placed over his mouth by the Queen of the Night’s ladies to stop him from lying about saving Tamino.
Tamino and Papageno are only armed with a magic flute and glockenspiel gifted to them by the Queen of the Night as well as three magic boys who travel in a Heath-Robinson-esque flying chariot charmingly played by Malakai Bayoh, Yanis Charifi and Daniel White to advise and guide them. But then the moral universe of the story takes a sharp U-turn.
In the 2nd act, we learn that Sarastro is actually the wise leader of a brotherhood of men and that Pamina has been kidnapped to protect her from her mother. James Platt as Sarastro is not just physically imposing but has a resonant ‘serious’ bass voice that imbues the character’s signature aria “In diesen Heil’gen Hallen” with a gloriously portentous sentimentality. We also find out that the Queen of the Night is seeking revenge on Sarastro because her late husband, the previous leader of the brotherhood, had passed on to him the magic Sun Circle, the source of her power. The Queen of the Night tasks Pamina with killing Sarastro with the threat of being cast aside by her mother if she doesn’t obey; meanwhile, Tamino decides to go through a series of emotionally taxing and life-threatening tests to see if he is worthy of becoming a member of the brotherhood with the prize of Pamina’s love at the end of the process. Near the end of the opera Papageno finds his Papagena who is introduced as a frisky ‘cougar’ in leopardskin. Alexandra Lowe hits exactly the right playful tone for the part and when she transitions to her ‘real’ young mini-skirted self the 2Ps voices come together joyously in the duet “Papagena, Papagena” with its feast of plosives.
So how is this swag bag of ideas managed in Dan Dooner’s revival of McVicar’s production? Designer John Macfarlane has created a set of imposing and gloomy monolithic columns, more Gotham City than ancient Egypt, swathed in smoke and dimly lit by the crescent moon.
The opera is driven by a series of dichotomies; day/night, male/female, rationality/superstition, and emotion/logic, but even the entrance of a huge blazing sun at the end of the opera for the final hymn of praise to herald Tamino and Pamina’s successful induction into the brotherhood (somehow Pamina has become an honorary man in one of the many contradictory elements in the plot) does not fully light up the stage. The sun is a sulfurous burnt orange with the cast decked out in quasi-medieval outfits in the same hue. There is inherent darkness at the heart of this production with Sarastro and his acolytes having more in common with the biblical Pharisees than liberation warriors.
Conductor Hartmut Haenchen controlled the orchestra of The Royal Opera House effectively with energetic tempi driving the piece forward and tight ensemble performances. However, occasionally there were balance issues with the singers being drowned out on the fortissimos!
Of course, all this quasi-Egyptian mysticism present in Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto is an allegory about Freemasonry dressed up in the guise of the trend for ‘fairy-tale’ operas, several of which he had already successfully produced. Mozart was himself a Mason and with the organisation’s emphasis on the brotherhood of man or social rank at the expense of religious dogma, the use of the number 3 in many aspects of the technical construction of the composition and the Masonic symbolism which the world of the opera is imbued with, there is no escaping the influence of the organisation on the fabric of The Magic Flute. The plot shift seems to have been influenced by the ‘Sein und Schein’ (reality and appearance) movement in German Philosophy and the character of Papageno is rooted in enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s conception of ‘the savage man’ unfettered by morality and just seeking pleasure and immediate gratification. Somehow composer and librettist have created a tapestry of ideas weaved out of Mozart’s sublime melodic and contrapuntal writing that continues to speak to a wide cross-section of the opera audience; when first produced The Magic Flute attracted both aristocratic and more progressive middle-class audiences. It continues to do so and this production continues to enchant and delight.
Remaining Performances on 24, 25 and 30 Sept; 4 and 7 Oct. The opera is streamed from 1 Oct
Tickets can be booked online from the Royal Opera House