08 Nov 2013
The Magic Flute, ENO, London
Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Coliseum could give the ENO a welcome boost.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Coliseum could give the ENO a welcome boost.
Simon McBurney's production is audacious but absolutely true to Mozart's cheeky, irreverent generosity of spirit. Tamino and Papageno find Enlightenment (and the girls of their dreams) because they dare face the tests before them. Each takes the journey in his own way: the saga transcends time and place. From Greek myth to Parsifal, even to Star Wars, the allegory refreshes itself in endless retelling. It is a universal voyage of self-discovery.
Ben Johnson as Tamino
Simon McBurney and Complicité create dazzlingly imaginative theatre. Their A Dog's Heart was astonishingly vivid. The opera was a mess but the staging turned it into art. With Mozart, McBurney has infinitely better music, and rises to the challenge. As we hear the Overture, we see a hand write words in chalk on a blackboard. As the opera evolves we learn its significance. Words communicate. We see images of books on shelves, and up to the moment mobile devices. The stage above the stage is a laptop or Notebook. It's suspended on wires from the roof and looks dangerously fragile, but that in itself has meaning. Finn Ross's' video projections are among the best in the business, and extremely well integrated into the drama. Technology may change the ways we express ourselves, but if we don't communicate, or refuse to engage with each other, we're lost. At the end, chalk figures proclaim "WISDOM LOVE". Simple and austere but all the more powerful for that.
Ben Johnson as Tamino (foreground), Rosie Aldridge, Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland (L-R background) as the Three Ladies
Technology changes in theatre, too. Film and computer-generated images break down physical restraints of production and free imaginative possibilities. The Magic Flute IS magic after all, not realism. It cries for cosmic flights of fantasy. McBurney's designer, Michael Levine, gives us the night sky in all its glory : myriad sparkling stars in the firmament. The Queen of the Night (Cornelia Götz) in this production isn't spectacular but the forces she commands most certainly are. Extra-terrestrial sound effects amplify the sense of cosmic spaciousness. Off-stage noises are a natural part of staging. Here they rumble at the edge of consciousness. Gergely Madaras seems spurred to conduct with strong, dramatic flair. This highlighted the quiet moments when the Flute (Katie Bedfiord) emerged. The flute felt all the more magical and fragile. The Flute is more than an instrument. It is fundamental to the meaning of the opera. Like Papageno's bells, it evokes something pure, primeval and plaintive. McBurney's staging was musically as well as visually astute. The "birds" that fly in these woods were pieces of paper fluttering like the pages of books. Like the Flute and the bells, economy of gesture expresses deeper meaning.
This staging is beautiful, revealing its charms obliquely, much as the Singspiel tradition is more subtle than later forms of grand opera, and McBurney respects the vibe. The scene where Tamino and Pamina float, apparently suspended in space, surrounded by "birds" is magical. The English dialogue is genuinely witty. Papageno (Roland Wood) quaffs a bottle of Chateauneuf du papageno!
Roland Wood as Papageno and Devon Guthrie as Pamina
The singing and acting were also above average for the ENO, hamstrung as it is by the need to do operas in a language other than those for which they were written. This cast delivered with panache, communicating their enthusiasm with style and wit, obliterating the lumpen ENO Die Fledermaus, killed not by the staging but by the performance.
Ben Johnson sang Tamino. He has stage presence..He even looks right, and creates a Tamino with personality, doggedly battling the situation he's in. His firm, assertive singing showed that Tamino is not a spoiled princeling but a man of character and resolve who can face what Sarastro, and the world, throws at him.
Roland Wood sang Papageno, ostensibly the lesser, low-born character in the opera but fundamental to its meaning. Princes abound in classical art, but Mozart gives us Everyman as non-hero in a strikingly modern way. From Papageno we can trace a line through to Siegfried and even to Wozzeck, a role taken by many good Papagenos, and one which Wood is surely destined for. The Papageno songs are harder to carry off than they seem because a singer has to express the role's innate nobility while acting the inept Fool. Spontaneous applause after the Papageno/Papagena duet., and very well deserved indeed. I didn't like the fake provincial accent and Little Britain connotations which English theatre is obsessed with, but Roland Wood's personality shines through the disguise.
Mary Bevan as Papagena and Roland Wood as Papageno
Mozart's arias for Sarastro are so resoundingly written that they evoke the idea of Sarastro as a figure beyond time, an acolyte, perhaps, of Egyptian gods. James Cresswell sang the part well, though he didn't quite suggest the complexity of the character: Sarastro has very dark sides. He's an unforgiving judge rather than a father figure. Cornelia Götz sang The Queen of the Night. Here, she's no Darth Vader vamp, as in some stagings, but a surprisingly vulnerable woman. Her Ladies (Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland, Rosie Aldridge) extend her part. Monostratos (Brian Galliford) conveys the Alberich-like animalism, suggesting that he's a dark cousin of Papageno, gone bad.
Devon Guthrie sang a lovely Tamina and Mary Bevan a spirited, lyrical Papagena. The Three Spirits were Alessio D'Andrea, Finlay A'Court and Alex Karlsson, costumed as ancients, whose Norn-like purpose they serve.
This Magic Flute might confound those who want their Mozart vacuous, but those who truly love the opera will get a lot from this highly individual, perceptive approach.
For more details check the ENO website