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Robert Murray as Tamino [Photo by Richard H Smith courtesy of English National Opera]
08 Feb 2009

Magic Flute at ENO

‘Back by popular demand’ claimed ENO’s publicity material for the 21-year-old production which had its supposed swan-song last season – though it remains questionable whether the company ever really intended to get rid of it.

W.A. Mozart: The Magic Flute

Tamino: Robert Murray, Michael Bracegirdle (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); Pamina: Sarah-Jane Davies, Mairéad Buicke (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); Papageno: Roderick Williams, Toby Stafford-Allen (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); Papagena: Amanda Forbes; Sarastro: Robert Lloyd, Graeme Danby (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); The Queen of the Night: Emily Hindrichs, Laure Meloy (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); Speaker: Graeme Danby, James Gower (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12); Monostatos: Stuart Kale; First Lady: Kate Valentine; Second Lady: Susanna Tudor-Thomas; Third Lady: Deborah Davison; First Priest / First Armed Man: Christopher Turner; Second Priest / Second Armed Man: James Gower. The English National Opera. Conductor: Erik Nielsen, Stephen Higgins (Feb 7 mat, Feb 12). Original Director: Nicholas Hytner. Revival Director: Ian Rutherford. Designer: Bob Crowley.

Above: Robert Murray as Tamino

All photos by Richard H Smith courtesy of English National Opera


Although Nicholas Hytner’s staging takes more of a ‘family entertainment’ approach than some more psychologically searching productions, with overt jokes and a pantomime-villain Monostatos, it is one of the company’s greatest assets; a well-established rite of passage for many of ENO’s promising young singers, an ideal first night at the opera for a child or adult beginner, and the sort of show which it seemingly isn’t possible to dislike.

ENO_TheMagicFlute-105.pngRobert Lloyd as Sarastro and Sarah-Jane Davies as Pamina

On this occasion, Sarah-Jane Davies and Robert Murray were well-cast and well-partnered as Tamino and Pamina. Davies sang in the last revival here, and she has become a really lovely Mozartian singer, her beautifully controlled soprano subtly imbued with pathos and emotion. Murray’s elegant tenor was ideal for the high-born, high-minded youth, and he was eloquent in his delivery of the English words. It was a shame that both seemed nervous and tentative in their characterisation.

As the Queen of the Night, Emily Hindrichs’s small, brittle and cleanly-placed soprano was initially impressive, but in the Act 2 spoken dialogue her rage had little sense of a noblewoman’s wounded pride, and she came across merely as petulant and shrill. Her subsequent aria had some lapses in accuracy. Robert Lloyd – a rare sight on this stage, having spent so much of his distinguished career at the Royal Opera – brought gravitas and a fatherly presence to Sarastro, with bottom notes of rich velvet.

Jeremy Sams’s gently humorous colloquial dialogue was delivered in a wide range of regional accents, some more real than others. In the case of the Three Ladies (guest principal Kate Valentine and chorus-members Susanna Tudor-Thomas and Deborah Davison) whose glamorous feather-trimmed midnight-blue costumes demand a certain amount of upper-class bearing, the use of various accents was a misjudgement; I wondered whether perhaps one of the three had been unable to disguise a genuine accent, and the other two had been obliged to affect accents of their own to compensate.

Papageno was played once again as a genial Yorkshireman by the very likeable Roderick Williams, though through no fault of his own he had trouble living up to his job description on this occasion. Two of the four real white doves, whose behaviour when they appear on stage during the Bird-catcher’s Song is usually impeccable, got uncharacteristically overexcited and decided it might be fun to evade capture. It took an additional pair of hands and a good two or three minutes to round them up, amid much audience mirth. The joys of live theatre!

ENO_TheMagicFlute-31.pngEmily Hindrichs as The Queen of Night and Robert Murray as Tamino

If the birds were intent on demonstrating the wisdom of the oft-repeated advice never to work with children or animals, trebles Charlie Manton, Louis Watkins and Harry Manton were here for the defence. They were quite the finest trio of boys I can recall hearing, perfectly in tune and impeccably vocally matched.

Conductor Erik Nielsen (Kapellmeister of the Frankfurt Opera), in his house debut, was rather stately and mannered in a heavily Baroque-inflected overture, but from then on his reading had a poised and even pacing that never dragged.

ENO_TheMagicFlute-122.pngSarah-Jane Davies as Pamina with the Three Spirits (Charlie Manton, Louis Watkins & Harry Manton)

The company has been strangely quiet on the subject of whether the staging has now been officially retired, or whether it has been granted a more permanent reprieve. But now that opera companies have a bigger challenge than ever in competing for audience spending power, it would surely be a waste to scrap such a sure-fire hit as this. It keeps those doves in work, anyway...

Ruth Elleson © 2009

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