08 Nov 2013
The Magic Flute, ENO, London
Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Coliseum could give the ENO a welcome boost.
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
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Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
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London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
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