The Magic Flute at ENO – some musings!

The Magic Flute is one of those works that makes little sense and total sense. No wonder Jaanos Leibner wrote ‘The Magic Flute is like a mirror: anyone who looks into it sees himself, and he will find in it whatever he is looking for’. According to his progrmme note Simon McBurney, director of the current ENO production, saw misunderstandings and chaos. But what’s special about this flute is the way that McBurney turns that chaos and misunderstanding into a madness which is coherent, mesmerising and ultimately both heart warming and chilling.

Its both brilliantly and playfully conceived on what at first appears to be a bare, barren stage. It is as if the magical world of the story appears from nowhere . Likewise this is a stage which has no boundaries -the production effortlessly flows from stage to pit and out into the auditorium, creating a sense of intimacy and drawing the audience in as willing protoganists. The tiniest details are blown up large. In a paper cinema style trick we see the small, made huge and epic (a blackboard mountain range, a hurricane swirl, a library becomes a wall with books of Wisdom, Truth and Reason becoming doors and the key to entry), sheets of music swarm and become birds, a simple looking (but technically complex) platform provides endless possibilities which the production exploits to the full. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The show manages to be both light and dark, funny, daring and definately magical. Sarastro (thrillingly sung by James Creswell) is head of a chilling cult. The kind of man who would both bear a grudge and through his absolute confidence, manipulatively inspire others; the kind who would kidnap the young,torn Pamina (Devon Guthrie) and find room for dribbling drop-out Monostatos (brilliantly captured by Brian Galliford). Cresswell gives us a TV evanagalist who is as sinister as he is good.

photo Tristram Kenotn for the Guardian

photo Tristram Kenotn for the Guardian

Meanwhile Roland Wood finds a home for Papageno in the heart of Yorkshire. His engaging bird catcher (or should it be pigeon fancier?) is permanently ill at ease, seemingly always lost but desperate to please. To run with the Shakespeare links the libretto at times seems too keen to over emphasizes, he’s more akin to Andrew Aguecheek than to Feste but none the worse for that. Inventive throughout, his bottle scene is an utter delight (and his step ladder comes in useful on more than one occasion!).

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

This is a strange and eery world. Everything is not what it seems. The three boys appear gnarled, aged and other worldly. The three ladies straddle the world of warfare and seduction with an ease which is fiercely predatory. The smallest of objects take on gigantic proportions. Into it (pursued by a serpent – probably the least effective of Finn Ross brilliant projections on Michael Levines industrial set) was thrown Ben Johnson’s Tamino. Never managing stripling (as the libretto endlessly demanded) he grows through the three hours from desperation, through childlike infatuation to princelike resolve.

All this provides a context which allows Flutes complex mix of allegory, fairy tale, sombre rite of passage and pantomime to feel both believable and comprehendable

The production is not without its weak points. Cornelia Gotz as the Queen of the Night fails to send the fear of God hurtling through my spine (despite all those top Fs),neither is she faintly ridiculous. Instead she falls somewhere in between the two..a Miss Haversham style character who engenders neither pity or bite. Surprisingly Stephen Jeffries translation and dialogue is also weak. it jars, with several lines being unhelpfully laughable and seems to elongate unecessarily the narratively more problematic second half. There are moments too when the on stage movement losses it’s playfulness and feels obvious and clumsy…

All that said its difficult not to be swept away by this flute. It certainly leaves you #desperate for (but fearful) of more.

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