What a joyous, fun evening of music and comedy this was.
Schikaneder’s libretto explores high aspirations (human brotherhood, enlightenment) and gentle humour (Papagena’s “Padlock moment”, his search for a woman) and Mozart’s music brings all up into the highest art. When it works, as here, it truly does propagate happiness. Yes, its chief concerns (the attainment of wisdom, knowledge etc,) are Enlightenment tropes which our “postmodern” times scoff at. Too, there are intimations of the Masonic, which are perhaps again, not relevant to our age. But who truly cares about that when the spectacle is done well?
I was at times remembering the ENO’s offering which featured Toby Spence, Complicitié’s hyperactive staging, complete with video projections and the like. Mr Spence in fact is a member of the other cast for this run, and the video projections, sound booths and other trappings of “hip-opera” are happily, absent.
McVicar’s staging of this production instead founds its force on old-fashioned enchantment. The Three Boys (ably sung by…three boys… Michael Clayton-Jolly, Matthew Price, and Alessio D’Andrea) are dressed as if drawn from The Famous Five, and often ride into their scenes deus-ex-machina (literally) being conveyed in a wicker basketed, mechanically flapping and tillered kind of “go-cart” (The effect is a wonderful coup de theatre.) Heavy use is made of trapdoors. Papageno actually plays his pipes and is oblivious to a delightfully played bird-contraption (by Tony Olié) which joins him onstage for his opening aria. The Queen of the Night looks dangerously, luxuriously regal. Sarastro’s first appearance blazes with light – the broad sunlit uplands of Enlightenment. This is all wonderful spectacle.
Only one false note here for me: as with Wagner’s serpent, the serpent here presents similar difficulties: how to show it, or to show it at all. Here it is shown, and perhaps not 100% effectively, in my eyes. There were quite a few children in this audience, so they may have felt differently of course, as may have adults!
Some thoughts then on the singing. Markus Werba made a game and touching Papageno. Comparisons with those who have played the role in the past are inescapable, especially when they live in the memory. I had most recently seen this same opera on DVD with Alex Esposito, and I thought he displays the comic side of the Mozart/Schikanederian creation a little better. But enough of comparisons, Werba made us laugh, especially with his hanging scene and his interactions with his Papagena (Rhian Lois). I wasn’t particularly convinced about Lois’ German accent, but that is small matter. I was also a little perplexed as to why she appears as a kind of East German (?) hooker (?) or man-killer. I suppose the conceit of having her as a wizened crone wasn’t to McVicar’s taste. In a way this was itself interesting, as Papageno might have counted himself lucky to have had this Pseudo-gena, especially when she almost initiates coitus herself, but then there’d have been no “Pa…pa…pa…pa…pa…” scene, which was charmingly done, especially when supported ably by so many real life “Papageni” as here! Once transformed Ms Lois made a Papagena very easy on the eye, with a nice voice to match. No wonder her paramour was so pleased!
Papageno’s “master” was Pavol Breslik, who has a charming light tenor voice, albeit with a shade too fast vibrato for my taste. Regardless, it suits the music, or at least doesn’t eclipse it. He convinced as the idealistic Prince, especially in his relationship with his Pamina, here given wonderful life by Christiane Karg.
Ms Karg was for me the standout in a field of good vocal talent. Her plush soprano showed its strengths throughout the night, perhaps in places a little too much, as if she is hinting that she has a voice beyond Mozartian demands – which safe to say, I think she does. She begun her rendition of “Tamino mein” (a favourite opera moment of mine) with gorgeous purity of tone, and much to my pleasure sustained it throughout. Perhaps there is something in the waters around the kingdom of the Night, because her Three Ladies were a little loose in their mixing of voices. If vocally a little less well blended than I had hoped for, then they at least made for believably nefarious agents of the Queen.
Anna Siminska was our Queen of the Night, but, as is often the case with coloratura soprano voices, her own seemed to lack amplitude/volume at times. Indeed her Act Two famous “Queen of the Night Aria” sounded a little uneven at the start, a few of the topmost notes a smidge wayward in intonation, but that is by the bye. Her appearance in Act 1 was well done (but for me, the memory of English Touring Opera’s production’s treatment of the Queen is hard to match!)
Special mention must go to Colin Judson’s game cavorting to Papageno’s chimes. With his retinue of creepy hangers-on, and his own Nosferatu-esque appendages, the effect was genuinely funny. When his Master admonishes him (or here doesn’t) with the “black as your face” line, a man in the audience behind me helpfully turned to his companion and conspirationally whispered “THE LINE IS: AS BLACK AS YOUR FACE!” (Thank you, man behind). This same Sarastro was Georg Zeppenfeld, who looked about seven feet tall next to Karg. His voice, curiously seems weighted to a lighter, lyrical side which imparted his noble Sarastro with just the right air of solicitude to imply that he is not in fact after all, a totally evil devil. Again, I was reminded of the fine job James Creswell did at ENO, his a more profondo type of voice, which highlighted his Sarastro’s role as keeper of profundities and the arcane very nicely.
When the rousing ending chorus kicked in, the Royal Opera House chorus sparkled with unusual vitality: a sound fittingly radiant. There were perhaps fewer tingles when hearing the ENO’s same body of vocal magicians, and perhaps less even with English Touring Opera’s utterly charming production of the same piece, but this merely means that for those others I had many tingles, and for this, comparatively fewer. And yet, bravi to them. Who could fail to be enchanted by this spell so successfully woven? Nor had I a care for any Masonic themes, any Mithraic/Mazdean bumpf, or for idolatry: when ‘the Sun’ appeared I was legitimately and blessedly delighted. This was revivifying stuff, two or so hours passing by with gentle grace. And didn’t Einstein* say that Relativity (first confirmed indeed by observing our Sun) was this same observation, that time passes more quickly when we are having fun? I smiled, laughed and definitely had fun.
Only one small note: though the ending ‘fade out’ was delightful, it led to some very hesitant clapping from those unsure if the opera had ended, until the curtain came down, whereupon the clapping became stronger.
(*happily enough, it seems that Einstein was actually fascinated by Mozart. Who isn’t!)