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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Mozart: The Magic Flute, soloists, English National Opera, David Stern (cond), Coliseum, 21 September, 2005 (TJH)



Tamino – Toby Spence

Papageno – Andrew Shore

The Queen of Night – Helen Williams

Monostatos – John Graham-Hall

Pamina – Janice Watson

Sarastro – Clive Baley

Papagena – Elizabeth Watts



ENO may seem rather daring to have chosen a new opera about lesbianism and sexual domination to begin their 2005/06 season, but there is just the faintest whiff of cynicism about their decision to back The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant with yet another revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Magic Flute.  Since 1988 Hytner’s production has occupied the Coliseum no fewer than eleven times; most of the present cast have appeared in it at least once before.  And solid a production though it is, surely the magic must long have disappeared from this Flute by now?

Of course, it is the job of revival director Ian Rutherford’s to keep Hytner’s vision fresh and captivating, and for the most part he has succeeded.  There is the feeling of high-class panto about the whole thing, with just the right level of idealized Masonic ritual in the second act.  And there is still much to relish in Bob Crowley’s designs, from the imposing, hieroglyphically-embellished pillars of Sarastro’s temple, to the astonishingly vivid red drape representing Monostatos' dungeon.  The costumes, too, are extremely appealing, especially in the beige-and-white-dominated crowd scenes.

But a revival, even more than a new production, stands or falls on the strength of its cast.  This time, in an attempt to hedge their bets, ENO have opted for two sets of principals, one familiar, the other consisting largely of newcomers.  The latter will be reviewed by Seen and Heard in October, but for the next few weeks, Toby Spence and Janice Watson are Tamino and Pamina, while Andrew Shore and John Graham-Hall sing Papageno and Monostatos respectively.  Clive Bayley will sing his slightly wooden Sarastro throughout, while Helen Williams will have the full run to perfect those tricky coloratura arpeggios she couldn’t quite pull off on Monday night as the Queen of Night.

Sadly, the biggest disappointment in this first cast is the leading pair of lovers.  Mozart’s characterization is already rather thin for Tamino and Pamina, but there is a deadening blandness to both singing and acting here, with Spence in particular coming over as the dull, white-bread goody-goody no-one really likes.  Watson is also unappealing, her voice far too fruity these days for a lyric soprano role.  It was very tempting to root for the baddies.

What stopped me from doing so was Andrew Shore’s marvellous Papageno, alive with wit and charisma from start to finish.  Shore walks off with every scene he is in – which is most of them, thankfully – and he supplies a large dose of the required magic.  The Northern accent, the inept panpipe playing, awful jokes, and lovesick longings are all in the finest pantomime tradition.  He is even blessed by an equally vivacious Papagena in the shape of lovely newcomer Elizabeth Watts; together they walk away with the show – or at least fly off in a giant egg with it.  Which just goes to show that no matter how immaculately you dust off the crimson drapery, it is the cast who add the real sparkle to any production.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff




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