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Seen and Heard Opera Review

 

Mozart, The Magic Flute (1st night of ‘Second’ cast):  English National Opera, Soloists, cond. Michael Rosewell, London Coliseum, 8.10.2005 (ME)

 

‘The old ones are often the best’ – ‘Now entering its umpteenth revival’ – no prizes, of course, for guessing correctly that the first of these phrases introduced a review of yet another revival of a Royal Opera House production, and the second, that of an ENO one: while the ROH seems quite able to get away with regurgitating yet another 25 year old brown sauce effort, poor old ENO gets set lines for anything that smacks of an ‘old’ production. Perhaps our esteemed ‘national press’ would have done better to have sent someone to review last night’s ‘Magic Flute’ rather than bothering with the ‘official’ first night, since this ‘second’ conductor and cast, despite what must have been the generally accepted limited rehearsal time given in such circumstances, produced some playing and singing which was at least the equal of any I have heard in more august houses or by more established singers.

Clive Bayley’s headmaster-like, sonorously voiced Sarastro, Elizabeth Watts’ vivacious Papagena and Helen Williams’ still-emergent Queen of Night (first aria shrill, second much better) have already been noticed on these pages: I had made a special request to attend this night for the debuting Pamina, Tamino and the musical director, all well known to me from several performances at the Royal College of Music, and in the case of the singers, artists whose future fame I anticipated from their first phrases on the stage of the tiny Benjamin Britten Theatre, some four years ago. They did not disappoint.

Andrew Kennedy is by now well known to UK lovers of song, having won the Lieder Prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and his Tamino on the present occasion was more than just a step further towards greatness from his College performance in the same role (reviewed here 6/03) – comparing it to that of the last Tamino I heard at Covent Garden, the dry-toned, unheroic Will Hartmann in February this year would be like comparing Wünderlich to an understudy in a minor provincial opera house. Kennedy is not a second Wünderlich, of course, but his own man, that is to say an English tenor who does not have the negative connotations of that type  (this has been gleefully written of him by just about everyone over the past year or so, but I believe I was the first to say, and define it in that 2003 review) but possesses more than the usual heft in the tone, an almost Siegmund-like ‘edge’ to the projection and a sense of phrasing that is eloquently musical and wholly pleasing. ‘Dies Bildnis’ was sung without a single intrusive aspirate (even the divine Fritz sang the odd little ‘h’) and with an all too rarely found sense of power in reserve. His diction was superb, with not one word missed, and his forward, ringing tone easily filled this huge house. He’s not a bad actor, either, presenting a refreshingly un-goofy prince.

His Pamina was another RCM ‘stalwart’ whom I last heard as the Angel in ENO’s ‘Jephtha,’ and she too had matured into a polished artist since her RCM ‘Zauberflöte’ in 2003. Sarah-Jane Davies has a really fine soprano voice, warm, rich, finely focused and tastefully used, and although she as yet may lack that air of touching vulnerability which some would consider essential in this role (though not the present reviewer, who was delighted with Ms Davies’ feisty style) this is a Pamina only just short of greatness: ‘Ach, Ich fühl’s’ showed some nervousness in the very exposed passages, but otherwise her tone was sweet without being cloying, her diction excellent and her overall assumption of the role as pleasing as any I have heard on either of London’s main stages.

William Dazely is a far more experienced singer whose exceptionally beautiful baritone is too rarely heard here: his Papageno predictably had the audience in the palm of his hand, and his arias were object lessons in clarity of sound, richness of tone and warmth of characterization – ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ had me wondering if someone might just make him an offer from the stalls.  I’m not sure if I care for the ‘Eeh bah gum’ accents imposed on him and on Papagena, but that adorable, if precarious ‘nest’ was as much of a hit as ever despite their struggles with the safety belts.

The three boys (three of Dominic Novak, Andrew Bullimore, Charles Morris, Jamie Roberts, Stefan Abrahams and Thomas Pinsker – we were not told which ones would sing on which night, but I feel they all merit mention) were simply the best I’ve heard, entirely devoid of annoying flutiness, singing and acting with real polish – just mischievous enough to be boys, yet just ‘special’ enough to be spirits. Fine cameos too from Darren Jeffrey’s Speaker and Colin Judson’s First Priest.

Michael Rosewell is a conductor I have always found inspiring, and it was clear that the ENO orchestra felt the same way; I don’t know how much rehearsal time they had, although I suspect it was very little, yet the sound that emerged was of players who were, emotionally and technically, coming home – tempi were on the slow side yet never lugubrious, the singers were given plenty of time to shape their phrases yet fully kept on their toes, and both string and woodwind tone was sinewy and supple. The Chorus was generally its usual superb self despite getting a bit lost in ‘Heil, sei euch Geweihten’ – I would have liked a bit more volume here, too.

Nick Hytner’s production, faithfully revived by Ian Rutherford, retains its great virtues of clarity, faithfulness to both libretto and music, and elegance of stage picture, but the chief joy of these final performances is in the singing, with as fine a quartet of lovers as you are likely to hear anywhere.

 

 

Melanie Eskenazi   





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