A very British ‘Flute' graces the stage for phase two of the Royal Opera's latest revival. All but a handful of the named principals are home-grown singers, surely a first in recent times, and their world-class performances are a tribute not only to the depth of talent this country can boast but to the vision of casting director Peter Mario Katona in bringing them together. With Julia Jones in the pit and an all-UK creative team at the helm, for once the country's premier opera company can take credit for flying the flag.
This Die Zauberflöte may be fielding its ‘Cast B', but it's an ‘A' team even so. The earlier Papageno, Christopher Maltman, has given way to the man who initiated the role in David McVicar's production some ten years ago, Simon Keenlyside. Freed from the passivity required of him in Kasper Holten's recent Eugene Onegin, the distinguished baritone was on top physical form and even appeared to incorporate - gamely - a genuine bout of hay fever into his account. His Act One duet with the Pamina of Sophie Bevan, a soprano who in her vocal and interpretational radiance has now entirely come of age, was blissfully harmonious.
The still-youthful bass Matthew Rose possesses a resonant lower register with no thinning of tone at the seabed. An actor of considerable subtlety, he too is now receiving due recognition and the role of Sarastro could well be his calling card for the next few decades. The Tamino of tenor Andrew Staples, another singer of great presence and promise, is not yet the finished product: he needs to locate the character's psychological centre and make him less of a cipher. Once he achieves that, vocal interest will follow.
Of the non-Brits, Sebastian Kolecek and Albina Shagimuratova continue in their roles (respectively as Speaker and Queen of the Night) from Cast A. Both were imposing in their different ways, and Shagimuratova - whom Simon Thomas in his review last month (see below) found lightweight but who now seems to have bedded in to the production - brought red-blooded force to her precisely-pitched coloratura passages.
Julia Jones, too, has signed up for the entire run. Her reading was assured but unspectacular, and with the ROH Orchestra purring before her in the pit Mozart's score toggled happily between the rustic and the refined. Some lush choral singing from the Royal Opera Chorus, excellent trios of Ladies and Boys and an exemplary pair of Men in Armour (David Butt Philip and Jihoon Kim) all contributed to an evening of superb musicianship.
Sir David McVicar's staging, assuredly revived by Movement Director Leah Hausman, cleverly plays on both the literal and figurative meanings of the word ‘Enlightenment'. The result is one of the most durable of modern Mozart visualisations because (for the first act at least) the spectator's imagination is teased with such warmth amid John MacFarlane's heavy-duty settings. If only the ingenuity of its early delights didn't give way to a blander second act saddled with the limpest of trials by fire and water. McVicar's inspiration here could have done with a good sprinkling of fairy dust. Or perhaps a tune on a magic flute.
- Mark Valencia