Enjoying its final outing for English National Opera a year ago, Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 production of The Magic Flute has been replaced by a new version, in a joint venture with De Nederlandse Opera and the International Festival of Lyric Art, from Complicite’s Simon McBurney.
McBurney has directed opera before, with A Dog’s Heart at the Coliseum in 2010, a production which featured a Giacometti-like dog manipulated by puppeteers. While Hytner’s production took a very straight forward approach to making sense of Mozart’s ‘jumble of farce and sublimity’, balancing the opera’s dramatic and comic elements, in McBurney’s production this balance of the amusing and the unnerving is not always as successfully handled, though it remains an entertaining and engaging piece, one which places as much emphasis on the visual as the aural.
The orchestra pit is raised so that the musicians are clearly visible, and the characters frequently enter this space to retrieve the soloists who will play the magic flute and bells for them. A camera lies to one side of the stage, the images from which are projected live; on the other side stands a sound booth from which a technician creates all of the additional sound effects, such as that of Papageno undoing a sweet wrapper and accidentally dropping the contents.
As is so often the way with Complicite’s work, the act of staging itself is foregrounded. The visual effects are frequently incredibly striking – with projections being used to portray the appearance of the serpent and the various journeys through fire and water – and there is some playful detailing, like the fact that Papageno carries a stepladder throughout so he can climb up to the platform which is suspended above the stage.
Sometimes this concept is pushed too far. The moments in which the performers create the idea of birds by flapping pieces of paper are funny at first, but soon become wearing. Too much of the action occurs behind a gauze screen, diluting the impact made by the Speaker of the Temple and the three Child Spirits when they first appear. The Children are portrayed as Gollum-like creatures, old men with sticks, and the Queen of the Night is a wheelchair bound Miss Havisham figure; this imagery is designed to disconcert, but it’s not as disturbing as it might be. More often than not the comic scenes are the most powerful and, as a result, they end up overshadowing the production’s more unsettling elements.
Having said that, the staging is for the most part dynamic and never less than enjoyable, and the musical performances are superb. Ben Johnson, as Tamino, has a rich and supple tenor voice while Devon Guthrie, as Pamina, reveals a sensitivity and a measured use of vibrato, especially in ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ (though you won’t hear those words in Stephen Jeffreys’ tongue-in-cheek English translation). Roland Wood gives a fine comic performance as Papageno, singing ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ while clambering through row D of the auditorium, while Cornelia Götz as the Queen of the Night demonstrates real focus in ‘Der Hölle Rache‘.