Director: Simon McBurney
Last night at the ENO’s Coliseum theatre, the staging was unconventional where an elevated orchestra was raised from the pit. The protagonist, Tamino (Ben Johnson,) walks up to the flautist, Katie Bedford, while our clown king, Papageno (Roland Wood,) approaches Soojeong Joo, who plays the glockenspiel, to prove that these musicians are playing their magical instruments. With Simon McBurney, artistic director of ‘Complicite,’ his version of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ is not what you would expect. His aim for the audience was to “see and hear,” much like 1791, two years after the French Revolution, when it premiered at the Theatre auf der Wieden, in Vienna. This integrated orchestra was the vision McBurney wanted to emulate, where music and action could interact – yet, this might have been an oversight, as those sat in the front paid extra, but they could only see half the stage.
In its original creation, the musical genius had many things to consider – the era it bore, the Enlightenment, and not forgetting, his participation in Freemasonry. This had influenced opera convert, McBurney, to spur him on to re-create a version just as radical as Mozart’s.
In McBurney’s production, before the lights had gone down, an enthusiastic Gergely Madaras plunges straight into conducting the orchestra. By the stage, in a glass booth, an artist makes visible movements chalking up the words, ’Act 1, Scene 1’ at a snail’s pace, projected for the audience’s entertainment, during a long overture. This tedious gimmick was best left out.
‘The Magic Flute’ is famous for Mozart’s grand musical wizardry and, more importantly, the Queen of the Night’s famous aria, ’the vengeance of hell boils in my heart.’ As a frequent operagoer, I was looking forward to hearing the hard-to-sing coloratura music being sung by a mystical and revengeful mother as a defining point of the performance. Instead we received the soprano (Cornelia Götz,) dressed down as an old cripple who struggled to hit those money-making notes and get off her own seat or in this case, an actual wheel chair. Götz had sung as the Queen of the Night many times, internationally, and tonight was not her best performance, but she wasn’t alone. Bestial and filthy looking, Monostratos, (Brian Galliford) was out of tune too, and not reaching his peak.
Heavenly cherubic delights came to the rescue, nonetheless, from the three boys dressed like wrinkled Benjamin Buttons, (Alessio D’Andrea, Finlay A’Court, and Alex Karlsson) as wise guides to Tamino. They deserved applause, but it may have been past their bedtime, as they were not seen at the grand finale. James Creswell, our voice of justice and principle, through Sarastro, was the antithesis of Götz and, whose caliber of voice was an astounding presence, hitting those basal tones well.
Johnson, a Ricky Gervais look-a-like, had distinctive vocals most representative when expressing love for Pamina, (Devon Guthrie) ‘this enchantingly beautiful effigy,’ a stranger that he gathers from a projection of her face on a collection of white A4 sheets, is the girl of his dreams.
Unfortunately Gutherie’s voice was merely adequate, lacking the sparks needed for a lead role. Still, the performance managed to redeem itself with the cheeky couple, Papageno (Wood) and Papagena (Mary Bevan,) who proved to be best-suited. Bevan had unravelled from a covered up elder to a young cute minx, whose talented voice, in a duet with Wood, celebrated the idea of making babies in their song, “Pa, Pa, Pa…” Wood had an uncanny resemblance to the TV bird catcher, Bill Oddie, who brought depth to his developed baritone role. His northern accent and woeful loneliness added a fine comedic pantomime attribute required to balance out a serious storyline.
Finn Ross, the video designer, and set designer, Michael Levine, should be mentioned for their exaggerated paper birds, unorthodox sets and technological visuals of immersing water and fire images against a suspended cast in the air.
McBurney is an actor, writer and director, which explains his theatrical canon for ‘Complicite.’ Yet, at first, he did not like opera, and said, it was, “obscure” and “pointless,” until he was encouraged to by Pierre Audi, artistic director of London’s Almeida. Having done his due diligence for ‘The Magic Flute’ beforehand, in an interview on Radio 4, he said he examined Mozart’s thought processes such as, “how is humanity going to evolve? We have just had the French Revolution and there’s buckets of blood everywhere.” Luckily, there was no bloodshed tonight, but a multiplicity of theatrical intrigue piled onto a delightful ensemble of high spirited music, engaging visual effects, and a diversity of animated cast members. Regrettably, there was nothing awe-inspiring to praise here. ‘The Magic Flute’ requires electrifying operatic voices and it seems that someone forgot to tell McBurney this, which is a big shame.