The Magic Flute

★ ★ ★ ★

The Magic Flute was the result of a collaboration between the great composer Mozart and his fellow free-mason, the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. It was a ‘singspiel’, intended for a broader audience than the one the composer usually catered for at the court opera houses. It incorporates a number of traditions of the popular Viennese theatre of the day. But to this tradition Mozart adds some of the most sublime music he ever wrote, and to the cliched story he and Schikaneder bring an added dimension that turns the contrast between Tamino’s view of the world and the earthier outlook of Papageno into a sort of universal morality tale.

Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, has been abducted by Sarastro, High Priest of a sun-worshipping brotherhood. The queen recruits Prince Tamino to rescue her and provides him with a magic flute and a companion, Papageno the bird-catcher. When they arrive at Sarastro’s palace, Tamino finds that not everything is quite as the queen has described it. He is eventually persuaded that, in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, he should seek membership of the brotherhood and should undergo a series of trials. Papageno just wants someone to love and refuses to see why he needs to undertake dangerous tests to find his Papagena. After overcoming the trials Tamino and Pamina together are acclaimed as the new leaders of the sun-worship cult.

Norman Reinhardt and Sarah Tynan sing Tamino and Pamina and both are marvellous. Fainting while evading a giant Serpent is not your standard heroic entry but Reinhardt quickly establishes the prince as a serious young man who can balance reason and emotion when it matters. Tynan too makes the most of the bravery of Pamina when facing difficult choices…“be truthful” she sings with blazing sincerity when Papageno is thinking about how to evade Sarastro’s punishment. And to back up this strong pairing we have two exceptional singers as Sarastro and the Queen. More CEO of an international organisation than High Priest, John Relyea has a ground-moving deep bass that does full justice to the arias Mozart originally wrote for Franz Xaver Gerl, one of his favourite singers. Rainelle Krause is the Queen of the Night and, despite singing her stratospheric arias from a wheelchair, she captures the demonic intensity of a woman who believes herself to have been robbed of her rights. David Stout is a rather sweet and simple Papageno but his ‘everyman’ common sense touches all the right notes, literally. There is no weak link anywhere in the fine cast of other singers. The conductor Erina Yashima is making her debut at ENO. She has a post at the Komische Oper in Berlin where they know their Mozart backwards. She brought the best out of the ENO orchestra, seated in a pit unusually positioned at stage level so that they seemed much more involved in the action than usual – a happy choice.

I am not an uncritical fan of Simon McBurney’s directorial style. There is still much to admire in this production first seen ten years ago but there are, for my taste, some mis-steps. No more paper-sheet birds please! But the two booths at the sides of the stage providing live animation and sound effects are a wonderful touch, as are the way that the flute and Papageno’s bells are drawn into the story. And the main strands of the story are clear and moving. ENO should be sure to keep this production in the locker for the difficult times ahead. If they can keep matching McBurney’s story telling with such fine singers it will always be worth a visit.


Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Words: Emanuel Schikaneder (translation by Stephen Jeffreys)

Conductor: Erina Yashima

Director: Simon McBurney

Performers incl: Norman Reinhardt, Sarah Tynan, David Stout, Rainelle Krause.

Venue: English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Photo credit:  Manuel Harlan

Until:  30 March 2024

Running time: 3 hours (including interval)