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<em>Die Zauberflöte</em> at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
24 Sep 2017

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The closing scene.

Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton

 

As we journey from the dungeon-esque darkness of the Queen’s nocturnal demesne towards the gleaming sun-disc which bathes the final chorus in the luminosity of enlightenment, a Dantesque night is truly turned into day.

However, in 2013 , I found the performance, while elegant and slickly choreographed, ‘disappointingly lacklustre’ and missing the sparkle of ‘simple youthful vitality and dreamy enchantment’. Reflecting again, perhaps some of my disenchantment derived from a perceived imbalance, on that occasion, between allegory and artifice.

For, while some lines of the opera’s libretto are based on sources used by the Freemasons, whose symbolism scholars have sometimes purloined in order to argue that a hidden masonic allegory underpins the opera’s quests and initiation rituals, in fact many of the magical and ‘marvellous’ episodes derive from earlier operas, pantomimes and comic plays that would have been well known to the audiences at Schikaneder’s the Theater auf der Wieden, and I am of the view that any elements of ‘freemasonry’ that are present are far less important than those of fairy-tale.

Tamino and serpent.jpg Mauro Peter (Tamino). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

During this performance, however, as the giant segments of the serpent wiggled and waggled, expertly manipulated by the puppeteers, and the marble columns of hallowed halls slid imperiously into dignified place as the orrery spun in heliocentric harmony, it was the opera’s human concerns that seemed more compelling than any abstruse philosophising.

And, for this more harmonious union of folky comedy and high seriousness, we have Roderick Williams’ effortlessly warm-voiced Papageno to thank. Williams is a seasoned bird-catcher having taken the role in several productions, including Nicholas Hytner’s ENO long-lived production and Tim Supple’s ‘grungy’ Flute at Opera North. But, even so, this Papageno has some way to go before his earns his stripes as master of the aviary. Outwitted by a puppet goose - I remember, too, an ‘incident’ with some recalcitrant real-life doves at ENO! - he eventually learns his own tricks, making the Priest’s feet (Harry Nicolls) dance to Papageno’s tune in ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. Williams evinces an easy physicality which never drifts into farce and heaps of appealing guilelessness: who would not be touched by fellow-feeling when this Papageno humbly voices his simple desire for love and happiness? His cheek and charm certainly earn the bird-catcher his perky Papagena-in-pink, though one suspects that he will have trouble preventing Christina Gansch’s sassy slapper from fluttering her feathers from time to time.

Papageno and Tamino.jpg Roderick Williams (Papageno) and Mauro Peter (Tamino). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

Williams’ expert comic timing was matched by that of Peter Bronder’s Monostatos. There was a ‘nasty’ edgy to this villain’s lasciviousness which, together with the masked beasts and vultures, suggested a darker vein in the pantomime.

Several of the cast are making their Covent Garden debuts and this was a significant incentive to see this revival. In particular, I was very keen to hear French soprano Sabine Devieilhe scale the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric peaks, having greatly admired her performance as Bellezza in Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016. And, she didn’t disappoint: ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ was absolutely secure and clean-toned, but ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’ simply took my breath away. I’m not sure how such a glacial tone can intimate ‘warmth’ or fullness, but somehow Devieilhe managed not just to hit the top Fs but to shape and soften them.

Sabine Deviele QofN.jpg Sabine Devieilhe (Queen of the Night). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

I’d previously been impressed too when I heard Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg sing in Keith Warner’s ROH production of Luigi Rossi's Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015, noting that she combined ‘a ravishing tone with pinpoint accuracy.’ The purity and richness of Stagg’s tone were put to good effect in her interpretation of Pamina’s gentle innocence, for she infused the lovely sound with a firm glint which suggested that beneath Pamina’s naivety lie integrity and resilience. ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ was unsentimental but deeply communicative, though I wondered whether Stagg would have liked conductor Julia Jones to have taken her foot of the pedal slightly - the aria followed rather precipitously from the preceding aria although Stagg’s poise steadied the ship.

Williams and Stagg.jpg Roderick Williams (Papageno) with Siobhan Stagg (Pamina). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

Mauro Peter’s Tamino might have had a little more ruggedness, but the Swiss singer has a lyric tenor of great beauty and the polished artistry of his phrasing and his careful diction certainly made his ‘princely’ mien convincing: ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ was tenderly love-struck. I found that Finnish bass Mika Kares lacked the sonorous weight needed to convey Sarastro’s authoritative sobriety - though I note that those who saw earlier performances in the run disagreed.

The three boys - James Fernandes, Oliver Simpson and Jayden Tejuoso - struck just the right balance between real boyish charm and pure otherworldliness. Their three voices blended beautifully to form a single gleaming thread of innocence and light; if one shut one’s eyes, one really could believe that they had descended from celestial realms. But, their interventions, preventing tragedy, were genuinely human. The three Ladies were less consistent, Rebecca Evans, Angela Simkin (a Jette Parker Young Artist) and Susan Platts coming adrift at times in terms of timbre and temperament, and, occasionally, tuning.

Jones’ tempos were swift. As in 2013, I wished for a more spacious composure at times for the opera presents both fury and sobriety, but I enjoyed the ROH Orchestra’s sure sense of period style.

Revival directors Thomas Guthrie and Angelo Smimmo (movement) have made a good job of polishing the ROH’s silverware and McVicar’s production continues to shine. At the closing curtain, Macpherson’s sun-disc seemed a perfect metaphor for Mozart’s opera: radiant and eternal.

The Magic Flute runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 14 October.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Tamino - Mauro Peter; First Lady - Rebecca Evans; Second Lady - Angela Simkin; Third Lady - Susan Platts; Papageno - Roderick Williams; Queen of the Night - Sabine Devieilhe; Pamina - Siobhan Stagg; Monostatos - Peter Bronder; First Boy - James Fernandes; Second Boy - Oliver Simpson; Third Boy - Jayden Tejuoso; Speaker of the Temple - Darren Jeffery; Sarastro - Mika Kares; First Priest - Harry Nicoll; Second Priest - Donald Maxwell; Pagagena - Christina Gansch; First Man in Armour - Thomas Atkins; Second Man in Armour - Sion Shibambu; Director - David McVicar, Conductor - Julia Jones; Revival Director - Thomas Guthrie, Designer - John Macfarlane; Lighting Designer - Paule Constable, Movement Director - Leah Hausman, Revival Movement Director - Angelo Smimmo, Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director, William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 20th September 2017.

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