The Magic Flute, Glyndebourne on Tour, Glyndebourne
Monday 18 October 2004
It was no surprise that Adrian Noble's take on The Magic Flute, unveiled at Glyndebourne in June, should evoke The Lion King: the Royal Shakespeare Company may have been his Alma Mater, but the West End is his spiritual home. Now revived by Frances Drysdale for Glyndebourne on Tour, it's been shorn of some of its West End excesses - and some of its super-furry animals - but the weakness at its heart still announces itself the moment the curtain rises.
"Help me, help me, lest I perish," cries Tamino, as the music swirls threateningly round him. But what confronts him is a prancing paper dragon, like the ones you see in Chinatown. The audience titter with delight, and all thoughts of danger are banished. And the story never recovers: that dimension of darkness so integral to Mozart and Shikaneder's conception is simply not there.
No, the dragon steals the scene, as does the bird which Papageno catches as it's let down on the end of a wire. There's nothing wrong with visible stage mechanics, but there's a lot wrong if those mechanics obliterate the drama and become the story, as they do when Papageno sings his lovely signature tune, and the bird comically flaps away from him on the floor. The audience don't watch him; they watch the bird.
Yet this Papageno is eminently worth watching: Toby Stafford-Allen could have been born to play this part, so warm, earthy, and lovable is his tone and manner.
And the Pamina that Papageno duets with - before he finally gets his Papagena in the bewitching form of Henriikka Gröndahl - is no less perfect casting. Valérie Condoluci, here making her British debut, presents such a delicate characterisation of the abducted princess that it's a while before an audience realises how pulsatingly real it is, and how ravishingly it's sung.
Her gorgeously floated high pianissimi make Peter Wedd's Tamino sound rather pedestrian, even though he's entirely adequate to his task. Indeed, there are no weak links in this cast: Lubana Al Quntar's Queen of the Night begins too cautiously, but rises well to her supreme vocal challenge, while Graeme Broadbent as Sarastro dispenses wisdom with gracefully grounded authority.
And the Three Boys - so often an embarrassingly weak link in otherwise good Flutes - are first rate. Full marks to Trinity School, Croydon, which supplied them.
Super-furry animals apart, and despite a distinct lack of electricity in the pit, this production has a lot going for it thanks to Anthony Ward's stunning costumes and designs: the denizens of Sarastro's kingdom are Sufi devotees, with the Three Boys Uzbek princes on a bicycle made for three; the underworld is a magnificent black tableau of knights and pilgrims; the vibrantly metallic colours Ward splashes across the stage are musical in their own right.
But at no point do we sense that vertiginous mystery which is what The Magic Flute is really about.
Next week Glyndebourne on Tour is in Woking, thereafter in Milton Keynes, Norwich, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Oxford
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