Mozart’s Magic Flute is so rich in music and in story that it can bear a hundred different interpretations. It can be a pantomime, a tragedy, a comedy, an allegory or a satire – and, at its best, all five at once. This excellent production by ETO doesn’t succeed in every aspect but it is a fine example of how this sublime opera can be re-imagined within the constraints of a production designed for touring without sacrificing the spirit of Mozart’s creation.
The Magic Flute is a fairy tale about Pamina, a damsel in distress, loved by Tamino, a heroic prince, who has to brave many ordeals to rescue her from the wicked sorcerer, Sarastro …. except that, of course, Sarastro turns out not to be wicked, Pamina is not a helpless victim and Tamino is hardly heroic – his first act is to faint in terror while fleeing from “a serpent”. The quest of Prince Tamino is mirrored by the trials of his companion Papageno, the birdcatcher, an everyman figure who wants nothing more than a good meal and a girl to love. Into this mix of fairy tale and farce, Mozart injects some of the finest and most moving music he ever wrote. Pamina’s aria of despair when she believes she has lost Tamino’s love, (“Ach, ich Fuhl’s”) sung with beauty and passion by the splendid Anna Patalong, was the musical high point of the night.
The chorus is excellent and the principal singers never less than competent. Anna Patalong is outstanding and Nicholas Sharratt as her Tamino grows in stature as he grows in wisdom. Wyn Pencarreg gives a simple and appealing birdcatcher swept along by events that he can’t understand. Laure Meloy as Queen of the Night exudes dramatic menace but the tone of her top notes was harsh. The three ladies and the three boys are excellent and work hard to deliver dramatic movement that doesn’t always seem designed to make the singing easy.
The production was fizzing with ideas, some of which worked well, some of which missed the mark. In the excellent English translation by Jeremy Sams, as Tamino enters, he tells us that he is being pursued by “a nightmare” and the chorus form themselves into a serpent-like chain. It’s a striking image and it holds out a tantalising glimpse of what might be to come but, though the chorus have much non-singing work to do, the idea is not taken forward consistently.
The contrasting light/dark, sun/moon theme that recurs in the opera is reflected in the lighted globes, wands, and lamps that the chorus carries, sometimes to striking effect, but too much of the action takes place in semi-darkness. One consequence is that we miss the magical effect of the moment when Tamino plays the flute to charm the forest animals. On a stage set at three levels with steep steps between each level it leads to some precarious moments for the less agile of the singers. And the climactic moment of the drama when Sarastro makes it clear that in future the temple will be ruled over by a man and woman in partnership, and not a man acting alone, is underplayed.
This production – well sung, with lots of humour and with some moments of real dramatic power – is a tribute to the creative minds behind the brilliant English Touring Opera. The cast changes from venue to venue but an excellent performance of this very accessible opera is clearly going to delight audiences up and down the country.