Magic Flute, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, March 2019

This is Singspiel — as it should be — eliciting spontaneous applause at some of the more theatrical moments in Simon McBurney’s excellent production. Now in its third run it blurs the lines between stage and auditorium, refreshing Mozart’s Magic Flute  and keeping the audience fully engaged from beginning to end.

Tamino and Pamina, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

Both Acts start informally as the raised orchestra, overflowing into the stage boxes, suddenly flares into life in the fully lighted auditorium. On each side wing of the stage are two additional performers, one creating occasional projections from a chalkboard, the other in a closed glass booth producing sound effects. Both use thunder sheets to create storm sounds, and the clear illumination of their activity adds to the apparent spontaneity of a performance taking place before our eyes. McBurney has even allowed a slight textual alteration at the start of Act 2 when Sarastro intones, “We are in a time of great crisis. The decision we must take is of the utmost gravity”, a clear reference to parliament’s confusion over Brexit.

Papageno and Tamino

This is a Magic Flute for our times, brought to life musically under the incisive baton of young British conductor Ben Gernon, making his ENO debut. Luxury casting with Lucy Crowe as a beautifully clear toned Pamina, well matched by the young Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino, a seeker of love and truth who helps her escape the malign influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. In this role German soprano Julia Bauer sang the coloratura well after a slightly nervous start, though lacking ethereal quality. Fine performances from her leading ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson) among a total of nine servants — shades of the Valkyries. A wonderfully theatrical performance by Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans as the bird-catcher Papageno, with ENO Harewood artist Rowan Pierce a delight as his little Papagena, and I love the imitation of birds by performers fluttering pieces of folded paper, with a flautist occasionally playing on the stage. Brindley Sherratt sang with huge warmth as Sarastro, providing a gently expressed authority without which confusion would reign, aptly expressed in his words (above) at the start of Act 2.

Flautist and fluttering paper birds

Clever production effects help create a sense of improvisation, enhancing the opera’s quest for love and truth, indeed enlightenment from a world of confusion.

Continues on various dates until April 11 — details here.

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