Opera productions are like people, some becoming old before their time while others seem perennially fresh-faced and full of vigour. ENO’s Cliff Richard is surely Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 Magic Flute, now in its 25th year and, we’re told, providing the final, final opportunity to enjoy its many pleasures. Rest is certainly not part of the regimen, as the show now on its 15th outing has been truly one of the company’s tireless workhorses.
Making his house debut, conductor Nicholas Collon delivers a lovingly-crafted and joyous account of Mozart’s miraculous score, and a uniformly excellent cast ensure that no-one, whether wanting to re-live earlier memories or coming to the show for the first time, will be disappointed.
Two American imports are real finds: Shawn Mathey an ardent and attractive Tamino and Kathryn Lewek, not the biggest-voiced Queen of the Night you’ll ever hear but rock-steady as she floats through the arduous pyrotechnics with ease. Elena Xanthoudakis is pure loveliness as Pamina and there are characterful portrayals of the Three Ladies from Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen.
Duncan Rock lends further refinement as a beautifully-sung Papageno, less knockabout clown than baritone hunk bursting through the feathers, in a performance that suggests future greatness as Mozart’s wicked Don (a role he’s already played to acclaim). Adrian Thompson tackles the indelicacies of the role of Monostatos with gleeful malevolence and Robert Lloyd shows familiar authority as Sarastro.
Hytner’s production, revived by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas, does gloss over some of the more difficult aspects of the staging, providing illustration rather than insight, but there’s nothing to offend either the traditionalist or anyone seeking theatrical excitement. Once the music’s taken care of so ably, there’s the question of the spoken sections, which always sorely test the singers’ acting abilities. Hytner (or his revival directors) doesn't shy away from the silliness of the work’s pantomime origins and steers a rocky course between high art and low comedy. Full worth is given to the Australianness of Rock’s Papageno (full of “mates” and “Sheilas”) and the Welshness of Rhian Lois‘s Papagena but shies away (just) from jokes about topicalities such as the economy or politicians' misdeeds.
Once these ten performances have been put to bed on 13 October, word has it that a brand new production is in the offing. The thought provokes mixed feelings; with entertainment this good, why not flog it until the shine fades but, with one of ENO’s most exciting recently-acquired directors rumoured to be at the helm, it’s something to look forward to in future seasons.
- Simon Thomas