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Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Shawn Mathey as Tamino [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera]
10 Oct 2012

Die Zauberflöte, ENO

‘The last-ever performances of Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute,’ claims the programme.

Die Zauberflöte, ENO

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Shawn Mathey as Tamino

Photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera


Maybe they are, maybe not; the same has been said before. It is, at any rate, difficult to think that they should not be. Quite why such reverence should be accorded what at best one might call a ‘straightforward’ production is beyond me. Some will doubtless applaud the lack of anything so strenuous as an idea or two, anti-intellectualism being so ingrained in certain quarters of this country’s commentariat. (Remember the outrage at the Royal Opera’s splendid Rusalka?) Some, ignorant of or simply uninterested in, the Rosicrucian mysteries of the work, will doubtless have been happy with a naïveté that sits at best awkwardly with our age, irreversibly ‘sentimental’ in Schiller’s sense. But surely even they would have found this revival tired, listless. Apparently some of them did not, however, given the raucous laughter issuing from around the theatre: any time a rhyming couplet appeared on the surtitles, some found it almost unbearably hilarious. Moreover, audience participation went beyond even the usual coughing, chattering, and opening of sweets. (A woman behind me must have made her way through a good quarter of the city’s stocks of Wine Gums). Someone even saw fit to disrupt the performance by shouting out a proposal of marriage to Papageno just at that saddest, pathos-ridden of moments when the music turns and he resolves to take his life. No matter though: it elicited a great deal of hilarity. And that of course is all that matters. Those who laughed at the priests’ dialogue may or may not have been aware how offended Mozart was at someone who did the same in the composer’s presence. Presumably the same people thought it ‘amusing’ to boo Adrian Thompson’s rather good Monostatos too. They seemed, however, a little hard of hearing, for their applause generally began long before the orchestra had concluded.

Magic-Flute-Elena-Xanthoud.gifElena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night

Jeremy Sams’s ‘English version’ doubtless egged them on in all their boorishness. I have asked before what is held to be wrong with Schikaneder. One can point to shortcomings, no doubt, though one should always bear in mind Goethe’s admiration. But the only good thing one can really say about this hodgepodge is that it is not nearly so bad as what Sams has inflicted upon The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It remains intensely pleased with itself, drawing attention to itself rather than shedding light upon the drama, and remains distant enough that ‘version’ is wisely substituted for ‘translation’. Yet, given the difficulties so many of the cast had with delivering the dialogue, it really might as well all have been in German. That would also have relieved us of that terrible clash between the text we know in our heads - especially for the text set to music - and that we hear on stage and/or see in the titles (the latter two not always being the same). Different accents are ‘amusingly’ employed; one might have thought it offensive to find a Welsh accent (Papagena) intrinsically funny, but apparently not.

Nicholas Collon’s conducting was disappointing. One often hears far worse in Mozart nowadays; yet, as so often, it was difficult not to long for great performances of the past (Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, et al.), or indeed of the present (Sir Colin Davis). ‘Lightness’ was for the most part all, a peculiar mannerism being the falling off into nothingness at the end of many numbers. Quite why one would wish to make this score, often but a stone’s throw, if that, from Beethoven, sound so inconsequential, is beyond me; at least it was not brutalised, as ‘period’ fanatics would wish. That said, the brass sounded as if they were natural; they may or may not have been, since modern instrumentalists are sometimes instructed perversely to ape the rasping manner of their forebears, and I could not see into the pit. At any rate, the result was unpleasant. A few numbers were taken far too quickly, but for the most part it was the lack of harmonic grounding that troubled rather than speeds as such; we were spared the ludicrous Mackerras triple-speed approach to ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s,’ one of the worst atrocities I have ever had the misfortune to hear inflicted upon Mozart. But as for the lily-gliding of introducing a glockenspiel part into the final chorus... Mozart is not Monteverdi; he does not need to be ‘realised’, and certainly not like that. A good number of appoggiaturas and other instances of ornamentation were introduced to the vocal lines, not least to those of the Three Ladies at the beginning. The fashionable practice does no especial harm, I suppose, but nor does it really accomplish anything beyond drawing mild attention to itself.

The-Magic-Flute-Duncan-Rock.gifDuncan Rock as Papageno, Elizabeth Llewellyn as First Lady, Catherine Young as Second Lady, Pamela Helen Stephens as Third Lady and Shawn Mathey as Tamino

Vocally there was more to enjoy, though the record was mixed. Elena Xanthoudakis made for an unusually rich-toned Pamina. Best of all was Duncan Rock’s Papageno, for the most part quite beautifully sung, though his dialogue veered confusingly between outright Australian and something less distinct. Kathryn Lewek had some difficulties with her intonation as the Queen of the Night, but then most singers do; more troubling was her tendency to slow down to cope with the coloratura. Shawn Mathey resorted to crooning more than once during his Portrait Aria and was throughout a somewhat underwhelming Tamino. Robert Lloyd’s voice is, sadly, not what it was; Sarastro’s first aria sounded very thin, though matters improved thereafter. There was luxury casting, however, when it came to the Three Ladies; Elizabeth Llewellyn is already a noted Countess, and it showed. The Three Boys were excellent too: three cheers to Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. Choral singing was a bit workmanlike but that may have been as much a matter of the conducting as anything else. One certainly had little sense of the kinship with Mozart’s other Masonic music.

The website and programme have the Two Armoured Men as the ‘Two Armed Men’, a strangely common yet baffling error: the German is perfectly clear. At least the production had it right, the men donning breastplates at the opening of that great chorale prelude. The Queen of the Night remains, for some reason, the ‘Queen of Night’.

Mark Berry


Tamino: Shawn Mathey; Papageno: Duncan Rock; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Monostatos: Adrian Thompson; Pamina: Elena Xanthoudakis; Speaker: Roland Wood; Sarastro: Robert Lloyd; Papagena: Rhian Lois; Two Priests, Two Armoured Men: Nathan Vale, Barnaby Rea; Three Ladies: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young, Pamela Helen Stephen; Three Boys: Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, Thomas Fetherstonhaugh; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Revival Directors: Ian Rutherford and James Bonas; Designs: Bob Crowley; Lighting: Nick Chelton, Ric Mountjoy. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick); Orchestra of the English National Opera/Nicholas Collon (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Thursday 13 September 2013

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