Wow. When Nick Hytner goes all out, he really goes for it. ENO’s sumptuous Magic Flute pulls out all the stops for this gorgeous production, and boy does it make for a good show. From live doves to four dancing bears, this is unabashedly over the top and it works. Originally directed by Nick Hytner (now Artistic Director of the National Theatre) in 1988, the revival by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas is hard to fault.
The set (designed by Bob Crowley) is stunning and makes full use of the Coliseum’s huge stage – a sweeping backdrop conjures up the temple of Sarastro in which much of the action takes place. The sense of being overawed by science is made explicit without hammering the point home, and adds weight to the occasionally lacklustre acting. The sound and lighting are spot-on, building unashamed melodrama. Most of the evening is lost is a whirl of Mozart’s gorgeous music (which is lushly rich in the hands of conductor Nicholas Collon) and visuals that make your eyes widen. The costume, colour and sheer opulence of the whole production whisk you away, to a world where every ending is happy and every cadence is perfect.
In such a marvellous froth of melodrama, the standard boy-meets-girl plot is complicated by warring parents, wayward servants and a number of trials before the lovers get to be together. We have a jolly evil Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek having a whale of a time and channelling her inner Helena Bonham Carter in a giant wig) and a lustful Monostatos (Adrian Thompson, also clearly having fun) who sings a charming ditty about how much he wants to rape Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis, in fine voice), but there is never any doubt that the good guys will win and love will conquer all.
Lewek makes the famous Queen of the Night aria seem effortless – and, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers – it is particularly impressive that all the ladies do what the men do but backwards and in corsets. Robert Lloyd makes a rather underpowered Sarastro – neither his presence nor his bass command the stage, and both Papagano (a highly amusing Duncan Rock, showcasing a rich baritone) and Tamino (Shawn Mathey, who has a wonderful tenor voice) overshadow him.
The plot, and the fun that the cast are having, verges on pantomime sometimes, but is all the better for it. It is fun, in a way that opera sometimes isn’t. That is not to say that it doesn’t take itself seriously (the skill is evident) but it wears its talent lightly. The translation into English is witty and lighthearted – often drawing chuckles with audacious rhymes and ability to cut through the melodrama with a joke or wry aside. This is a fine production, and one that makes for a hugely enjoyable evening.
The Magic Flute is on the The Coliseum, home of the ENO, until 18 October. Running time approx. 2 hours 50 mins. For more information and tickets see the ENO website.