After the epic inanities of Mike Figgis’s cinematic take on ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ at the Coliseum - whose only saving grace was a trio of superb voices - it was sweet relief to encounter David McVicar’s ‘Magic Flute’ at Covent Garden. McVicar may have his own way of going over the top, but in this classic production, now in its third revival, he doesn’t put a foot wrong.
It certainly helps that John Macfarlane’s painterly designs mutate with the momentum of a dream, and that the tableaux which confront us at pivotal moments are exquisitely in keeping with the eighteenth-century world in which the drama is set. If the protagonists’ trials by fire and water are metaphorical rather than literal, the evening is otherwise studded with coups de theatre. Why should a Heath-Robinson winged soapbox make such a charmingly appropriate vehicle for the three boy sopranos? No point asking - it just does.
But the real key to this production’s success lies in the fact that it keeps faith with the conviction underpinning the opera itself: the belief that, for humanity to realise its full potential, reason and materialism must be magically transcended by art. Mozart’s Masonic ideas were a world away from those permeating the grandiose lodge just a few streets away in Covent Garden.
Colin Davis conducts with a gravity which is at times too measured, but the cast is unusually strong. Tenor Joseph Kaiser, stepping in as Tamino, gives his role a lustily heroic quality which nicely complements Kate Royal’s Pamina: Royal has acquired a purity of tone to match her grace of manner, and her big arias now have arresting beauty. Meanwhile Christopher Maltman’s ebulliently physical Papageno is as earthy as ever, and his sound has become luminous: Anna Devin’s irresistible Papagena made just the right foil for him, and confirmed her as the most exciting soubrette in the business.
There are no weak links anywhere. Franz-Josef Selig’s Sarastro has a warm rumble and majestic presence; attended by his deranged rabble, Peter Hoare makes a satisfyingly pantomimic Monostatos. Jessica Pratt sails effortlessly through her Queen of the Night coloratura, Matthew Best finds a glorious sound as the Speaker. I haven’t heard a happier audience at curtain-fall in years.