The Magic Flute never goes out of favour, but it's never out of date either, with its profound insights, wrapped in the most delectable music. And directed by David McVicar at the Royal Opera House it's hard to find a better production. No wonder it will reach its 350th performance during this run.
Unashamedly beautiful designs by John Macfarlane, ravishingly lit by Paule Constable, reflect the opera's underlying themes. Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, has been taken away, and she enlists passing hero Tamino to retrieve her, with the help of three magical boys and that flute, and with the hindrance of a more cowardly bird-catcher, Papageno.
Elsa Dreisig, with the Three Boys, makes an impressive ROH debut as Pamina. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Pamina is found in the enlightened world of mystic Sarastro, who will admit Tamino to this higher way of living, if he puts himself to the test. Papageno, like the mallard on his head, will settle for a mate.
Some productions of The Magic Flute, most recently at Glyndebourne this summer, run scared of these high-minded ideals. McVicar does not, and nor did Mozart, who based some of the idealism and rituals of the piece on his own commitment to the Freemasons.
This production, under revival director Bábara Lluch, tackles some of the opera's difficulties for a modern audience. A character considered repellant because of his colour is rendered appalling by his foppish ways. When the women are obliged to leave the men to their fine thoughts, some watch uneasily, as if suspecting that their presence would actively benefit all. And we first meet Sarastro no in some great hall but in his elegant home, with a bookish son and daughter, lit as if in a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.
The Three Ladies do the Queen of the Night's bidding. Photo: Tristram Kenton
But for the most part, Mozart is faithfully served. Refinement, intellect and honour are everything; grotesquery, malice and abuse are out.
As a spirited Pamina, French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig made her splendid Covent Garden debut, her burnished tone complemented by a warm and characterful stage presence. As Tamino, British tenor Benjamin Hulett pulls off something of a feat, making a character who often appears to have been stuffed into a real lover, who realises that he has been sold a simple half-truth by the Queen of the Night, and who isn't afraid to change his mind.
Vito Priante as Papageno and Benjamin Hulett as Tamino. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala brought the house down on first night with her big Queen of the Night numbers. As a furious mother giving it all she's got she ripped through the stratosphere, as bright and defined as the stars in her inky realm.
The highly adaptable Italian baritone Vito Priante makes a rubbery Papageno, and there is colourful and hugely entertaining work by the Three Ladies and the hearty boys. Where there is fun to be had – enchanted animals, a flirtation for Papageno – it's enjoyed to the full, but never at the expense of the opera's gravitas.
The opera was first staged in 1791, three months before the composer's death, and its many joyful moments are balanced by a degree of solemnity which are respected here, and buoyed up by brisk dialogue and nippy surtitling.
Leo Hussain, conducting the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, brings to the overture a majestically symphonic quality, and although singers and instrumentalists come uncoupled from time to time, the playing is vigorous and lovingly shaped.
A treat in all dimensions, in short: an opera for the whole family, a visual and musical treat, with layers of meaning for everyone.
The Magic Flute is sung in German with English surtitles. Further performances are on 8, 12, 16, 18, 22, 25 and 27 Nov.
|What||The Magic Flute, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
01 Nov 19 – 27 Nov 19, nine performances; one interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|