The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (venue)
20 September 2017 (released)
29 September 2017
My own first experience of the magic was in 1963 when I worked (unpaid) for a production staged by amateurs but sung by professionals and performed in London’s Belgrave Square. The director, more interested in the Queen of the Night’s knock-out arias and the uplifting side of the story than the pantomime, gave me only one command: ‘Papageno and Papagena must be dressed in real coloured feathers.’ Fast forward to many months later when a knock at my door announced the arrival of a bailiff intent on recovering a £20 debt for coloured turkey feathers from Suffolk. Naturally, I pleaded penury. Happily, a cup of tea and glance round my flat assured him that there was nothing worth £20 and we parted amicably.
Later, I considered this absurd incident an appropriate continuation of Papageno’s influence on The Magic Flute. In this revival Roderick Williams takes over the role created by Simon Keenlyside with much the same level of athleticism. Seldom off the stage and given some of the opera’s best-loved tunes, he strives continuously to derail the higher good with his mockery. If his common man sensualism seems over the top, without him, there really wouldn’t be much of a story.
The Queen of the Night, sung with exquisite steeliness by the acclaimed SabineDevieilhe, is hardly an effective enemy of the good. After all it is she who gives Tamino his magic flute and Papageno his magic bells. Even Monostatos, acted and sung with gusto by Peter Bronder is scarcely more than a pantomime villain seen off with a ‘Boo’ by Sarastro.
This revival of Covent Garden’s 2003 production, bold on pantomime, bold on majesty, still holds its own. The Queen of the Night trills against a magnificent moon and Sarastro emerges from back marble pillars that suggest an appropriate mixture of church, palace and Masonic hall. I did wonder whether it wasn’t time for the serpent to take honourable retirement in a dark cave somewhere but then we might have to submit to back projection which would be a completely different sort of production.
In the end, just as my own director felt all those years ago, (I haven’t mentioned that by an unfortunate oversight our animal heads had no eye holes so blundered their way about the stage, one eventually falling off) it is the music and singing that sweeps one away. The Three Ladies, Rebecca Evans, Angela Simkin, Susan Platts provide an exquisite if unthreatening chorus so I looked forward to their every entrance. Tamino (Mauro Peter) sings movingly and is as convincing as any so-called Javanese prince can be. Pamina who takes on Papageno with her advice to always tell the truth, is delightfully sung by Siobhan Stagg. Mika Kares is an impressive enough Sarastro to bring it all to an eloquent close.
With two acts, many scenes and only one interval, this is three hours of opera where every minute is filled with beauty. The usual excellent essays in The Royal Opera House’s programme proclaim it is as a source of everlasting discussion, disagreement and above all, admiration. Two and a quarter centuries since its composition, its theme of a quest for a higher order of being, still seems as relevant as ever.