The Magic Flute, Coliseum, London

A Flute that's still magic
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Nicholas Hytner's 1988 production of The Magic Flute wears well. It's a little like the refurbished Coliseum: grand and gilded, an extravagant folly. But then, so is the piece. It's Mozart's West End musical. Magic - it's in the title - heroes and villains, laughter and tears, comedy and spectacle, triumph and transformation. The punters expect. So what if there's more Disney than philosophy in the mix.

Nicholas Hytner's 1988 production of The Magic Flute wears well. It's a little like the refurbished Coliseum: grand and gilded, an extravagant folly. But then, so is the piece. It's Mozart's West End musical. Magic - it's in the title - heroes and villains, laughter and tears, comedy and spectacle, triumph and transformation. The punters expect. So what if there's more Disney than philosophy in the mix.

Back in 1988, when all of us were a lot younger, Hytner and his designer Bob Crowley went big. They went lavish. Short of bringing in Cameron Mackintosh, there really wasn't much more they could have done to sell this Flute. The curtain rose and a collective intake of breath was plainly audible. It still is. There's Tamino coiled in some kind of monster boa constrictor. It looks real enough, its tail curling, its jaws gaping in readiness for the fateful bite. It was/is a great image. They even put it on the posters. His reflection and silhouette play off the shiny black floor on to the sweeping white wall beyond. And then a huge fissure appears in it, and in come the Queen of the Night's ladies-in-waiting, all shot-silk gowns and big punk hair. Not bad for the first minute or so.

And Hytner and Crowley keep it up. The magic of the title implies surprise. Tricks. And with the arrival of Papageno, the birdcatcher, himself done up as the biggest and silliest bird you ever did see, there's more. White doves - real white doves - homing in on cue to the sound of his pipes. Later come dancing bears (not real this time, but cute) - Jungle Book auditionees. Now we're really talking Disney. But it works. Heart-warming and eye-filling. Never mind all the Masonic theorising, pantomime is what this piece is really about. Oh, no they won't, oh, yes they will.

But visual storytelling is one thing - the text (given here in Jeremy Sams' smartly colloquial English translation) is another. There's a lot of it, and it can be a problem for your average opera singer. The singing-actor as opposed to the acting-singer is required here, and ENO fields a few. Monostatos - the sexual predator with a nasty comb-over (Alasdair Elliott) - sounds like he could be on loan from Welsh National Opera; then, with a nod to other regions, there's a Yorkshire Papagena - chain-smoking charlady-turned-likely lass (Sarah Tynan), and a West-Country Papageno. It's he, of course, who carries the show. He's the naughty child in all of us. Toby Stafford-Allen is excellent. Bags of energy and voice, and as loveable as he is charming. His appeal to the audience for a mate very nearly pays off, I fancy.

Tamino is Toby Spence, looking dashing and worked-out enough to be a prince for any latter-day princess. In fact, the open, clarion sound of his voice is the perfect complement to Carolyn Sampson's lovely Pamina. Again, gloriously open production with real reach and intensity. The heartache of her aria ("Ach, ich fuhl's") felt and sounded like the real thing.

I wish I could say the same of Victoria Joyce's Queen of the Night. She could pop the high Fs alright, but the quavery indecision of her voice lacked the focus and core steeliness essential for the role. An unfortunate drop-out in the coloratura of the first aria didn't help. As her nemesis Sarastro, Brindley Sherratt had some great notes at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, but not that last degree of vocal charisma. Still, one could believe in his benevolence as chosen leader of his Shaker-like "community".

Nicholas Kraemer conducted with a grandness totally in keeping with the production. His mellow expansiveness at the outset took a bit of getting used to, but there was real comfort and distinction in the wind-playing throughout and - as total eclipse turned to blazing sunshine - a pleasing sense of Enlightenment all round.

To 16 April (020-7632 8300)

Comments