A human heart laid bare

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Coliseum, until December 7

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 22 November 2013

It may reflect an aspect of the evolving nature of opera performance that one of the most successful new productions I have seen this year happened to field one of the least distinguished casts. On the other hand, it may simply reflect my own peculiarities as a critic. Either way, English National Opera's first new staging of Mozart's Magic Flute for some twenty-five years - a co-production with Complicite - is remarkable for the absence of the kind of vocal charisma on which the idea of opera in general, and of Mozart's familiar late masterpiece in particular, by and large depends.

The reason for the production's success is twofold. The first is that the orchestra, under the direction of the inexperienced but calm, precise and energetic Gergely Madaras, recipient of the company's first Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellowship, play their socks off, taking advantage of a spell in the limelight for a fine display of crisp ensemble and elegant but distinctly high-spirited phrasing.

Nor is the limelight merely of the metaphorical kind, but it derives from the orchestra pit having been raised much as it would in Mozart's day, to a point where, with a few steps, it becomes continuous with the stage. One notable advantage, aside from an increased directional clarity (and thus immediacy) in the sound, is that the usual rather silly attempts to marry pretend flute and bell playing on stage with their real, subterranean corollaries, could be sidestepped altogether. Both the flautist Katie Bedford and the celeste player SooJeong Joo rise (literally) to the occasion, managing the interaction with the stage characters with remarkable naturalness. In a nice comic flourish, Papageno himself takes the final celeste solo, shooing away Joo on her return from a coffee break.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Simon McBurney and the theatre he founded now thirty years ago that the openly collaborative spirit of the staging goes a great deal further than this. Mozart's score is supplemented with radio-style sound effects, produced by an on-stage Foley artist and amplified (and electronically enhanced) from their source to the right of the stage, which takes the form of a glass cupboard, stocked with buckets of gravel, bottles, metal sheets, etc. Across to the left is the similarly low-tech origin of the maJority of the visual effects. These comprise a chalk board, a row of fake book spines representing the walls of Sarastro's domain, and a handheld camera used to proJect images onto the backdrop, scrim, or the suspended platform that forms the central section of the stage. The effects range from the informative ("The Magic Flute, by W A Mozart") to complex designs interacting with the stage movement, and only on one or two occasions (the trials by fire and water) are they generated by anything more high-tech than a man showing images of something he has Just drawn with chalk. Another lovely touch comes with Papageno's birds, simple folded leaves of paper given vivid life by Complicite actors. Their response to Papageno's countdown to threatened suicide - flutter, droop, drop - is quite heartbreaking.

There's an extra dimension to McBurney's direction, however, in that his intention is clearly to render the entire theatrical apparatus as transparent as possible. And the point of this, besides adding extra layers of "live" excitement to the audience experience, is that it undercuts the main traJectory of the drama in the way it lays bare the workings of its own magic. To express this simply, the flute here seems more powerful for being a real, playable one. But the matter runs deeper. While Schikaneder's scenario centres on Tamino and Pamina's spiritual Journey from an enchanted realm to an enlightened one, the contrast is rarely wholly satisfying. Sarastro's power may reflect the love his subJects feel for him, but it is an absolute and unquestioned power nonetheless, and upheld in a web of magic no less mysterious and unaccountable than that of the Queen of the Night. This quasi-dictatorial status enJoyed by Sarastro is exposed via McBurney's decision to cast the character as a televangelist, operating at the centre of a world of brightly lit, eerily calm, air-brushed perfection. Tamino is thus desirable primarily for the way he appears, rather than as an actual hero searching for truth and wisdom - which, given that he falls in love with a snapshot, transfers his loyalties at the flick of a switch and seems inexplicably to lose track of his uniquely conspicuous guide (Papageno), explains rather a lot. Those who lie outside Sarastro's reach appear, by contrast, prematurely aged, or decrepit. The Queen of the Night is pushed about in a wheelchair by shadowy minions in dishevelled army fatigues, while the three boys are emaciated, wizened little sages. Monostatos, disgraced, quickly becomes disgusting, sprouting hair in all directions, his flesh spilling out from every seam.

The question of whether Sarastro's illusion is false or not is left open, but there is great ingenuity in the way the grand drama of good and evil is subtly pushed aside for something a little more palpable, and palatable. Indeed, this Magic Flute really seems to centre on the figure of the bird-catcher Papageno, here distinctly middle-aged, but also the one character who really seems to have an actual skill, or craft, and also a functioning human heart.

This is satisfying on a number of levels, not the least of which is that Roland Wood, who sings the role, provides the one really outstanding vocal performance of the evening. Particularly striking is the lack of artifice in Wood's singing, reflecting the general tenor of the show without sacrificing power or proJection (he is in fact better known as a Verdian baritone), and facilitating the move to speaking voice with remarkable naturalness and command of comic timing. ENO's rising star tenor Ben Johnson, by contrast, seems rather detached, while both Devon Guthrie's Pamina and Cornelia Götz's Queen lack fullness of tone. Mary Bevan, in her delightful but all too brief appearance as Papagena, offers a glimpse of how enchanting this otherwise very enlightening production could one day become.

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