The English National Opera (ENO) has once again created something unexpectedly modern and beautifully raw with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but how on earth does one create such an exceptionally up-to-date production of an opera, now over 200 years old? First performed at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna on 30 September 1791 and then having its UK debut at the King’s Head theatre, London on 6 June 1811, The Magic Flute delighted audiences both young and old with its celebration of both serious and comic themes.
The story focuses on three primary characters: Tamino, a prince, Papageno, a bird catcher and Pamina, the daughter of the dangerous Queen of the Night. Tamino (Ben Johnson) is rescued from a snake by the Queen of the Night’s (Cornelia Gotz) Three Ladies (Eleanor Dennis, Clare Presland and Rosie Aldridge) after he stumbles into an unknown land. They subsequently rush to tell their mistress that he could be the one to rescue her kidnapped daughter, Pamina (Devon Guthrie), and after seeing a picture of her Tamino is immediately smitten. He is then approached by Papageno (Roland Wood) who is there to hand over his latest ‘catch’ to the Queen’s Ladies in exchange for food and drink. What follows is Tamino and Papageno’s quest to rescue Pamina in the twisting and turning fantastical land, as well as other sub-plots.
The set of Simon McBurney’s production is simple and for the most part completely stripped back with a ‘mini’ stage that is the basis for much of the plot as it is raised, twisted and turned upside down to coincide with the action. The set’s designer, Michael Levine, currently attached to Sarah Tipple’s Madam Butterfly (also playing at the Coliseum) is a talent with an eye way ahead of its time; he’s also versatile, creating a natural and realistic aesthetic in Madam Butterfly, embodying everything that makes Japan beautiful whilst in The Magic Flute he has fashioned a cutting edge aesthetic, going at it all guns blazing with use of technology and multi-media. Some of the best sequences in this production include the use of a projector, lit up onto a screen on-stage, which a member of the team uses to compose words and images – as Roland Wood’s Papageno rushes around the stage declaring his need to get laid, the screen reads: #desperate. Hilarious. ENO really is at the forefront of what the future of opera is likely to hold; it is a universe open to absolutely anything.
The Magic Flute is essentially a comedy and this is never more obvious than when ENO regular Wood is on stage. He far outweighs anybody else, though he is followed closely behind by the Three Ladies, Dennis, Presland and Aldridge. Whilst generally the voice talents are exceptional, the same can’t always be said for the acting. ENO is and continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the theatre world. As it works to wrap up this season and move into next year, it is inevitable that we are going to be treated to some very special pieces…
The Magic Flute is playing the London Coliseum until 7 December. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website. Photography © De Nederlandse Opera, Matthias Baus