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Reviews

07 Nov 2019

Die Zauberflöte brings mixed delights at the Royal Opera House

When did anyone leave a performance of Mozart’s Singspiel without some serious head scratching?

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by David Truslove

Above: Vito Priante (Papageno) and Elsa Dreisig (Pamina)

Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton

 

This seventh revival of David McVicar’s Die Zauberflöte, first shown in 2003 and now rebooted by Bárbara Lluch, is no less gloomy or plausible in its narrative. Thankfully, its exploration of Enlightenment values, and its narratives of morality and power, are all given a light dusting and freemasonry is all but erased in this dark and occasionally enchanting production.

The glowing orbs carried through the stalls at the start of the Overture signal where we’re heading, not necessarily plot-wise but more by suggestion in terms of emotional trajectory. Ancient superstitions are abandoned for reason and a partnership of equals emerges after several testing ordeals for Tamino and Pamina whose joyful union is ultimately celebrated. Sounds cosy, but notions of power and equality propounded by Mozart’s librettist Emanuel Schikaneder are merely ideals, and in that sense, we’ve not come very far since Viennese audiences first heard this musical fairy-tale in 1791.

Benjamin Hulett (Tamino).jpgBenjamon Hulett (Tamino). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

The work’s underlining solemnity is balanced by gentle humour, generated not so much by the accoutrements of popular theatre presented here - a wriggling serpent, the rubber chicken or the air-borne bicycle - but by the characters themselves, principally the comic exchanges between Vito Priante’s engaging Papageno and Elsa Dreisig’s spirited Pamina. Their partnership is more convincing than any other on stage and enjoys a special camaraderie nowhere more obviously than in the companionable duet ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe’ - sung with effortless musicality and glorious tone and connected by a real chemistry - a bond that, had he been a tenor, Priante and Dreisig would have made a believable married couple-to-be. Benjamin Hulett’s ringing Tamino is fervently and cleanly delivered: a strong wholesome and safe-as-houses tenor arrives in ‘Wie stark ist’, but the unvarying nobility of stance and textbook movements never quite draw the eye. Tamino’s betrothal to Pamina is a plot convenience, but here manages to look more manufactured than usual simply because the rapport is missing and it’s not just Mozart’s fault.

The composer conceived the work for a theatre in a Viennese suburb for a popular audience used to family entertainment. That he elevated this Singspiel to more lofty dimensions isn’t an issue here, more the absence of any sense of wide-eyed wonder in a shadowy production that stems as much from the drab colours (even the wild animals look anaemic) as the unimaginative direction, and where singers at times are almost overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the surrounding marble columns. These crowd the stage to oppressive effect and merely highlight the post-war pallor of the costumes. Spectacle is there, of course, such as the giant moon and sun, but it needs more than a lick of paint to liven up proceedings within these, often empty, cavernous spaces. 18th-century frock coats, pretty dresses and a shabby suit for a mallard-wearing Papageno don’t quite remind us that this opera shares elements with pantomime.

Elsa Dreisig (Pamina) and Tuuli Takala (Queen of the Night).jpgElsa Dreisig (Pamina) and Tuuli Takala (Queen of the Night). Photo credit: ROH/Tristram Kenton.

Niggles aside, I enjoyed the absence of distracting movement during many of the set pieces, allowing key arias and ensemble numbers to register fully, to speak for themselves as it were. Particularly memorable was the wonderful Act Two Terzett ‘Soll ich dich’, beautifully rendered, buoyant and sung with flawless ensemble and genuine affection - a standout moment of pure bliss. Elsewhere, the trio of Ladies (Kiandra Howarth, Hongni Wu and Nadine Weissmann) eventually found an accommodation in their ensembles, a quality brought off with great assurance by the three boys Richard Wolfson, Joshua Abrams and William James who made the most of their cameo roles.

There is plenty of drama from the Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala as an admirable Queen of the Night. Her arias blazed with conviction and brought sustained applause for her efforts. Equally impressive, and at the other end of the stave, is the commanding presence and amply upholstered bass of Andres Bauer Kanabas as Sarastro. His shapely ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was especially gratifying. So, too, was the clarion and insinuating tone from Rodell Rosel as a foppish Monostatos - less a repellent monster than someone to be ridiculed. It was curious to see Papagena dressed as a woman belonging to the oldest profession, but Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz fulfilled her portrayal with ease.

Leo Hussain directs the Royal Opera House Orchestra with flair, bringing flexible and generally forward tempi. Despite the odd disagreement between pit and stage the opening night was a musically persuasive evening and will sharpen up in time.

David Truslove

Tamino - Benjamin Hulett, Papageno - Vito Priante, Queen of the Night - Tuuli Takala, Monostatos - Rodell Rosel, Pamina - Elsa Dreisig, Sarastro - Andres Bauer Kanabas, Papagena - Yaritza Véliz, First Lady - Kiandra Howarth, Second Lady - Hongi Wu, Third Lady - Nadine Weissmann, First Boy - Richard Wolfson, Second Boy - Joshua Abrams, Third Boy - William James, Speaker of the Temple - Darren Jeffery, First Priest - Harry Nicoll, Second Priest - Donald Maxwell, Men in Armour - Andrés Presno & Julian Close; Director - David McVicar, Conductor - Leo Hussain, Revival Director - Bárbara Lluch, Designer - John Macfarlane, Lighting - Paule Constable, Movement Director- Leah Hausman, Revival Movement Director - Angelo Smimmo, Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Friday 1st November 2019.

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