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S & H Opera review

Mozart, The Magic Flute Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera, Coliseum, 2.30pm, Saturday, March 27th, 2004 (CC)


Nicholas Hytner’s staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute stands the test of time (this is its tenth revival, this time under the direction of Ian Rutherford). It contains much to delight (the Papageno-Papagena duet, with its nest descending from the heights carrying the two ‘love-birds’ – sorry – is but one example). The glimpses of forest we see are positively Eden-like. Hieroglyphs abound. Here is a story set firmly outside of any rigid temporal confines that takes some of its religious aesthetic from Ancient Egypt, in a land of Magic where the polarities of Good and Evil are sharply differentiated (even if it is not immediately clear which is which). True, the staging does not harp on about the Masonic influences that underlie the plot, rather preferring to present a fairy-tale with a happy ending, the deeper layers of which remaining firmly buried.

To enable such a varied score as Magic Flute to hang together requires a super-sensitive conductor. Nicholas Kraemer fits the bill nicely. Kraemer has made something of a speciality of early music (he is principal guest conductor of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, for example) and that was perhaps immediately obvious because of his handling of the fateful trio of chords that opens the opera and in the fast speed of the main body of the Overture. Yet this was no rushed-through account, for Kraemer found plenty of space for the beauties of the score (and there are many) to come through. The processional that opens Act II was calm and measured with a warm and full sound. Kraemer’s handling of accompanied recitative was superb (the hand of experience was fully in evidence), his sense of the work’s architecture never in doubt.

Rhys Meirion, an ENO Company Principal, took the part of Tamino, Mozart’s ‘hero’, on this occasion (one of four performances - Toby Spence takes on the role in all others). Meirion, entering entwined with a rubber snake, is possessed of a pleasant, rounded voice (not a hint of the Heldentenor here) which can operate a silken legato when required. His light yet expressive timbre came into its own with ‘Dies Bildnis’ (‘Such loveliness without compare’) while his affecting, sing-song Welsh accent worked well in the spoken passages.

In 2000, Susan Gritton took the part of Pamina - a mouth-watering thought; for this performance we had Mary Nelson (Carolyn Sampson also takes this role for some of this run of Flute). Nelson is a newer kid on the block who has a lovely tone and also – importantly – acts well. She started a little on the weak side (this was the first of her four performances, so maybe this was simply nerves), growing quickly in confidence and stature. She looks the part, too (the loveliness Tamino sings about is entirely credible) and her acting is substantially above the opera singer’s norm.

Her performance of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ (‘Now I know that love .…’) was given with a pure tone and a sweet, honeyed legato, while her duet with Papageno (‘Bei Männern’) was so successful because of the well-matched voices of Nelson and Toby Stafford-Allen. Stafford-Allen, his country bumpkin accent complementing Meirion’s Welsh one, is an ENO Young Singer making his role début here. And what a success he was. His comedic timing is excellent (it must be a wonderful gift of a role – he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself), his voice always focussed and his meeting with Papagena (Sarah Tynan, a char-lady with a Yorkshire/Lancashire accent) pure delight.

This matinée was Laure Meloy’s one and only traversal of the Queen of the Night’s pyrotechnics. Her experience seems to have been over the pond in the USA so far, so how good to be able to give her a warm welcome here. With a range like hers, it is no surprise to learn that she ‘covered’ the part of Lulu (Berg) – she is excellent in alt, (her first Aria in Act I was ample demonstration of this), her pitching little short of miraculous. Similarly, ‘Der hölle Rache’ (Act II, ‘The fire of hell is burning in my bosom’) was delivered with real venom.

Graeme Danby as Sarastro sang with a lovely, velvety sound, yet his high register lacked substance – was it projecting right to ENO’s rafters? Alisdair Elliott’s Monostatos was agile in his Act II aria (with the ENO orchestra light as a feather here). The two ‘trinities’ – the Three Ladies and the Three Boys – balanced each other in their excellence, both in terms of vocal mixing and of comedy value. All six singers had obviously been carefully handpicked. Perhaps special mention should go to Ravi Shah’s First Boy, which was especially pure of tone.

The ENO Chorus was superb, the overall sound marvellously and carefully balanced. The final chorus, with the colour-shifting moon now transformed to a full sun, was a triumph, a reminder not only of the force of Good, but of Mozart’s compositional omniscience.

This is a magnificent production. Backed by such stylish orchestral playing and some truly sterling vocal contributions. It surely should be counted as one of the ‘must-sees’ in London at the moment.

Colin Clarke




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