Friday, March 15, 2019

Sarastro gets a sympathy laugh

Wow! Thomas Oliemans as Papageno.
(All photos courtesy of ENO, (c) Donald Cooper)

It's not every day that Sarastro announces "This is the most important assembly we've ever held - the decision we are about to make is of grave importance" - only to find half the audience giving him a belly-laugh. But then, it's not every day that The Magic Flute feels so relevant to our needs that the whole of the House of Commons should be frogmarched into the Coliseum and made to study every word of it. This Magic Flute has got...bells.

ENO's production by Simon McBurney is back for another revival, and gosh, it's just better and better: the storytelling could not be clearer, nor the inventiveness, nor the meaning. In Mozart and Schikaneder's Enlightenment fairytale, wisdom, truth and love battle against the forces of darkness – lies, ignorance, superstition, vengeance, violence. (Sounds familiar?) And the forces of good triumph. (Yes!) Along the way, in their quest, the young couple Tamino and Pamina are tested to their limits, and protected by their steadfast devotion to each other and the power of their music. (Double yes!)

The Magic Flute in person, with attendant bird action
The ingenious designs by Michael Levine turn the spines of books into pillars of the temple of wisdom, and Papageno's birds are their fluttering, faithful leaves. Wisdom, enlightenment itself, comes through studiousness, learning, books, self-discipline, the embrace of art and culture. The transformative effect of music saves Tamino and Pamina's lives and Papageno's too. There is something uniquely moving about a work by one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived that pays such a direct tribute to the art to which he devoted his short life.

The Magic Flute is open to infinite numbers of interpretation and reinterpretation, but McBurney's is the only production I've seen in which the emotional climax - the tests of Fire and Water - actually are frightening: an extended, roaring engulfment of flames followed by a magical flood in which Tamino and Pamina must swim for the spiralling surface. There's magic and whimsy aplenty - the sets are live-drawn, the sound-effects produced by a Foley artist in real time (she even has to dodge the attentions of Papageno), and the prince and Papageno are respectively attended by the orchestra's flautist and keyboard player, trotting up from the pit when needed - until Papageno learns to play his own bells.

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) swim for their lives
For this revival the musical performance is a little uneven, but chiefly splendid: Lucy Crowe's Pamina brought a blazing emotional gravitas, Thomas Olieman's Papageno a grumpy yet irresistible charm. Brindley Sherratt's Sarastro simply couldn't be bettered (and, um, I think he was speaking those crucial lines perhaps not 100% "in character" which, under the circumstances, is fine with me). Julia Bauer's Queen of the Night delivered her arias with a concentrated punch of energy, making up in scariness for anything lacking in projection. Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino was slightly the opposite, with a powerful tone that nevertheless did not fully bloom into the sort of open generosity one might long for at the top. The Three Ladies had luxury casting in Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson, Daniel Norman was a splendid Monostatos and Rowan Pierce's Papagena so appealing that you'd wish her to have a great deal more to sing.

Ben Gernon's conducting felt a little hard-driven and businesslike, at least in the first half; there was sometimes too little space for the music to breathe and it seemed to lack the sense of lightness and air that can add the final touch of Mozartian warmth; but in the second half, Papageno's high comedy with the tuned wine bottles and Lucy Crowe's heartbreak aria oddly enough sorted things out as if simply through the power of Mozart himself. And the upside of the briskness is that the drama does bowl along, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

The performance was dedicated - as McBurney announced at the end - to the memory of its translator, Stephen Jeffreys, who died last autumn. His English version sparkles and twists and shines.

And did we come out of the Coliseum to find that wisdom had prevailed down the road in Westminster? Not quite - and yet, there's progress. Perhaps a parliament trip to this show might help them put the final pieces into place to save us all from the forces of darkness...

Go see. You'll laugh and cry.