The Magic Flute, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2016.

English National Opera’s outreach to a younger and wider audience is well served by Simon McBurney’s (Complicite Theatre) production, first shown in 2013. Purists may object to the numerous theatrical innovations, but on the other hand this opera was originally conceived as a Singspiel, in other words a play with music, and its librettist Emanuel Schikaneder was an actor, singer, impresario and hugely innovative man of the theatre.

Three ancient boys and Pamina, all images ENO/ Robbie Jack

Three spirits and Pamina, all images ENO/ Robbie Jack

McBurney’s production uses techniques unavailable in Schikaneder’s day. On one side of the stage we see a production assistant in a glass booth creating sounds, such as the rustle of paper, or the tapping of bottles, amplified by speakers. On the other side is a chalk-board where another assistant occasionally writes, erases and moves the board, creating images on the stage backdrop. These production assistants become part of the performance, as does the raised and raked orchestra. A real flute, with flautist, emerges from time to time, and a spotlight also falls on the instrumentalist in one corner playing the magic bells. There are witty moments, such as when Papageno plays the bells himself while the instrumentalist is absent, and as a stage spectacle this is all rather fun. The wild animals, a strong feature of many productions, are seen here only in sketch form, but this very modern production can do without actors cavorting around in lion and bear skins.

Sarastro and Pamina

Sarastro and Pamina

With so many clever production effects there is always a danger of submerging the music, as is happening with a Chabrier operetta at London’s other main opera house, but Mozart’s music can sustain it, and Mark Wigglesworth’s deft conducting took everything in stride, beautifully enhancing the magic and allowing plenty of space to the singers.

Heading the cast was the wonderfully lyrical, ex-ENO Harewood artist Allan Clayton singing strongly as Tamino, and the lovely Lucy Crowe showing a glorious purity of tone as Pamina. James Creswell’s powerful bass gave a fine inner strength to Sarastro, his long hair contrasting with the short back and sides of the rest of the brotherhood. Dramatically effective support from Peter Coleman-Wright as an affable Papageno, Ambur Braid as a theatrically ancient Queen of the Night, Soraya Mafi as Papagena, and John Graham-Hall as an eminently whiny and ill-dressed Monostatos.

Trial by Water

Trial by Water

McBurney’s production enhances this remarkable opera’s theatrical quest for true love and enlightenment, and is well worth revisiting even if you saw it first time around.

Performances continue on various dates until March 19 — for details click here.

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