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2008, London ROH, Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte


(photo credit, Bill Cooper)

“…the outstanding performance of the night came from Simon Keenlyside as a definitive Papageno…” musicOMH.com

“The joy, and the reason to go, is Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno…”Evening Standard

“Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno … is an unforgettably touching and disarmingly human interpretation” The Guardian

Composer : Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist : Emanuel Schikaneder
Venue and Dates : Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
28, 31 January
2, 5, 7, 8, 13, 22, 23, 26, 27 February
1 March 2008
Conductor : Roland Böer – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 7, 8, 13, 22, 23 February
David Syrus – 26, 27 February, 1 March
Director : Lee Blakeley (revival of the 2003 McVicar production)
Designs : John McFarlane
Lighting : Paule Constable
Choreography : Leah Hausman
Performers :
Tamino : Pavol Breslik – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Christoph Strehl – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Pamina : Kate Royal – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Genia Kühmeier – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Papageno : Simon Keenlyside – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 22, 23 February
Christopher Maltman – 7, 13, 26, 27 February, 1 March
Queen of the Night : Anna-Kristiina Kaappola – 7, 13, 22, 27 February
Erika Miklósa – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23 February, 1 March
Sarastro : Hans-Peter König – 7, 8, 13 February, 1 March
Stephen Milling – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 22, 23, 26, 27 February
Monostatos : John Graham-Hall – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Adrian Thompson – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
First Lady : Anna Leese – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Anita Watson – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Second Lady : Monika-Evelin Liiv* – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Liora Grodnikaite – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Third Lady : Gaynor Keeble – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
Elizabeth Sikora – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Papagena : Kishani Jayasinghe
Speaker : Robert Lloyd – 7, 13, 22, 27 February 2008
Thomas Allen – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8, 23, 26 February, 1 March
First Priest : Harry Nicoll
Second Priest : Donald Maxwell
First Man in Armour : Robert Chafin – 28, 31 January, 2, 5, 8 February
Andrew Staples – 7, 13, 22, 23, 26, 27 February, 1 March
Second Man in Armour : Vuyani Mlinde
First Boy :  Andrew Matt – 28 January, 2, 7, 13, 23, 27 February
Charlie Manton – 31 January, 5, 8, 22, 26 February, 1 March
Second Boy : Nick Hampson – 28 January, 2, 7, 13, 23, 27 February
Christian Kopieczek – 31 January, 5, 8, 22, 26 February, 1 March
Third Boy : Thomas Pinsker – 28 January, 2, 7, 13, 23, 27 February
Declan Hall – 31 January, 5, 8, 22, 26 February, 1 March
The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Notes : This is a revival of the 2003 production.The 2003 production is available on DVD.
Click here for details: Die Zauberflöte, Covent Garden, 2003, DVD

Picture Gallery

(photo credits, Bill Cooper)


Keith McDonnell, MusicOMH.com, 29 January 2008


This revival of Die Zauberflöte is the Royal Opera at its very best. This is the fourth outing for David McVicar’s stylish production and its unbridled joy and energy is enough to dispel the January blues.

David McVicar’s production is the epitome of everything a production of a repertory piece should be, yet so seldom is. He has evidently given much thought to what Mozart’s singspiel is about and re-interpreted it for a modern-day audience without resorting to cliché.

Setting the work in the Age of the Enlightenment works admirably for both the serious and light-hearted aspects of the work and he is aided and abetted by the sumptuous designs by the ever-inventive John Macfarlane.

The story is told simply, efficiently and honestly and leaves you feeling more than satisfied by the end of the evening. This is destined to become a classic Royal Opera production and if the vandals at ENO are to believed, in that we’ve seen the last of Nicholas Hytner’s venerable staging, then London’s operatic-going public will be well-served by McVicar’s staging for many years to come.

Conductor Roland Böer made an auspicious house debut, and led a taut, muscular reading, securing fine playing from the orchestra in the process. The co-ordination between stage and pit was well-nigh faultless. After a disappointing Figaro at the Coliseum last season it was good to see him fulfilling the potential as a Mozart conductor he had promised with Clemenza at ENO three years ago.

The cast was welded into a true ensemble, but the outstanding performance of the night came from Simon Keenlyside as a definitive Papageno. He has been the constant in this production since it was first unveiled in 2003 and it’s hard to imagine a more rounded, wholly convincing portrayal of this role these days. His singing is immaculate (that goes without saying) but it’s the pathos that he brings to the role that makes his interpretation so memorable. I don’t think I’ve seen the role infused with such melancholy before: simply unforgettable. He rightly received the biggest ovation of the night but was utterly self-effacing in his acknowledgement of it.

Stephen Milling’s cavernous low-notes added gravitas to the role of Sarastro whilst Erika Miklosa provided stratospheric pyrotechnics as a quite-stunning Queen of the Night. She even managed a diminuendo towards the end of her second aria that took the breath away.

Christoph Strehl has sung the role of Tamino in most of the major houses in the world, yet here seemed out of sorts. He started nervously and it was only in the second act that he seemed to have the measure of the house. Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier was happier as Pamina although her tone is too bleached for my liking. Despite this she was heart-stopping in her fiendishly difficult second act aria.

Ladies, boys and priests were all cast from strength, making this a vintage night at the Royal Opera and a Zauberflöte to treasure.


Dominic McHugh, musicalcriticism.com, 29 January 2008


For this third revival of David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, we were lucky to have two of the greatest Papagenos of recent years onstage.

Of course, Simon Keenlyside – now surely indispensable to the role in this production – took on the character with his usual verve, but the other show-stealing performance came from Sir Thomas Allen, formerly an admired Papageno before graduating to the part of the Sprecher, the Speaker of the Temple, who pops up to set Tamino on the right path in one of the most important scenes of the opera towards the end of Act I.

Sir Thomas’ feeling of text, his gravitas and his charisma were outstanding in this performance – one even noticed his presence for a few spoken lines in the large scene at the start of the second act.

Unfortunately, though, Allen’s sense that this opera is about some of the profoundest issues that mankind has to deal with was not shared by most of the rest of the cast, who put in capable but largely unmemorable performances.

I remember that when the production was last revived in 2005 with Charles Mackerras in the pit and Rebecca Evans as Pamina, it took on a kind of glow that was well suited to the special colour of the score, something which it didn’t have on previous occasions. However, McVicar’s creation seems problematic in this revival, partly because of a lack of Personenregie or direction of the singers (possibly due to McVicar’s absence from the revival?). John Macfarlane’s sets are fabulously atmospheric and beautiful, even if the stage machinery was rather noisy at this performance, but McVicar seems keener on exploring the idea of the Singspiel as an aspect of eighteenth-century theatre than on the deeper messages offered by Schikaneder’s text and Mozart’s score. The functions of the production are self-consciously overt: the serpent in the opening scene is manipulated by visible stagehands; the rope holding up the three boys’ flying machine (pictured) is deliberately thick; actors rise through trap doors to provide Papageno’s noose and wine; Sarastro appears with a live falcon, saluting the trend for live birds in the theatre of Handel and Mozart; and the bare tree backdrop towards the end is covered by another backdrop of a tree with leaves which descends from above. It’s all tremendously attractive and well-observed, and the evidence of Enlightenment paraphernalia, such as the scientific apparatus in the Speaker’s scene, adds to the sense of time.

But I don’t think it’s particularly touching or funny, two of the primary characteristics of a great production of Die Zauberflöte. Tamino in particular is such an unthinking, unmotivated figure on the stage that one feels little engagement with his journey; since this is the focus of the opera, it’s a huge problem. McVicar rises to the occasion with some delightfully silly pranks for the comic moments – having Monostatos and his cronies join hands and lark about like a Broadway chorus line, for instance – but I feel it cheapens Papagena’s character to change her from a beggar woman to a hooker. As he says himself, Papageno is seeking someone decent and honest, and it undercuts his quest for happiness to land him with a bimbo. In spite of the excellent thunderclaps, there’s also an absence of danger – partly due to the decision to make the machinery for the serpent so obvious – and in consequence, it doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake here. In short, the production does not deal with the story as if it were a matter of life or death.

The vocal performances varied dramatically in quality, too. Keenlyside’s singing, acting, carthwheels, whistling and even imitation of birdsong were as captivating as ever, though to a small degree it felt like he was trying to overcompensate for the inertia of some of the others (for which one can’t really blame him). Genia Kühmeier was a convincing Pamina and projected more strongly than most of her colleagues, even if she slightly lacks the creamy tone of the likes of Rebecca Evans and Lucia Popp; her G minor aria was a highlight. But Christoph Strehl was heavily strained as Tamino, struggling to remain in tune or sing with any legato through the break between his middle and upper registers in his big arias. Stephen Milling lacked dramatic focus as Sarastro, though he sang fluently; John Graham-Hall camped it up nicely as Monostatos.

Erika Miklósa struggled with the coloratura in the middle register of her voice in both of her arias, but otherwise I thought her interpretation of the Queen of the Night was quite fascinating. She sang with an unusual level of musicality, varying the dynamics more than any other soprano I’ve heard in this role, and attempted to make the character three-dimensional rather than a stock villain. I thought the Three Ladies were vocally very weak, indeed almost completely inaudible at the beginning, and they weren’t remotely menacing, but Young Artist Kishani Jayasinghe was a sweet Papagena.

Though not as disastrous as his Figaro at ENO a couple of years ago, Roland Böer’s conducting of this score was disappointing, especially compared to Mackerras’ revelatory reading in 2005. The coordination of instruments in the Overture was very peculiar, with too much weight on the horns – indeed it was a very brass-heavy performance. Speeds were often too fast for the singers, notably in Tamino’s ‘Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton’, but in other places a lack of momentum (caused by Böer’s unassertive and unclear beat) made the performance drag. The biggest problem for me was that he simply didn’t conjure up the colours, sounds and feelings which make this amongst the greatest scores written for the opera house.

The Magic Flute can be a life-changing experience, but it wasn’t here. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy with the entertainment of the production and Keenlyside’s electric Papageno.


By Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard  29 January 2008


Papageno to perfection

Magnificent: Simon Keenlyside as Papageno manages to be Chaliapin and Chaplin rolled into one

Mysterious rather than magical, shrouded in swirling cloud and gloom, the Royal Opera’s Die Zauberflote, in David McVicar’s 2003 production, has been revived for a third time. If as yet it remains low voltage, one central performance binds all together with energy and brilliance.

The evening sparked into life with a vibrant account of the overture under German conductor Roland Boer. String playing was lithe and sinewy, with punchy woodwind and a notably fruity, well characterised bassoon line. But John Macfarlane’s elaborate sets, a non-specific space dominated by ever shifting black columns, present a shunting yard of murky abstraction.

Were it not pitch dark, it would, I feel sure, look handsome.

The Three Ladies, stunningly weird, sounded classy, and the Three Boys displayed fine, bell-like confidence and zest. Genia Kuhmeier’s Pamina had touching purity of tone but even less personality than Christophe Strehl’s underpowered Tamino. Stephen Milling mustered eloquent solemnity as Sorastro.

As the Queen of the Night, Erika Miklósa hits the coloratura spot on and with the assurance to colour and shade it. Yet she doesn’t freeze your heart as this thrilling, ambiguous role can. John Graham-Hall’s eerily foppish, bewigged Monostatos is masterly and Thomas Allen adds cameo quality as The Speaker.

The joy, and the reason to go, is Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno. This most generous of artists pours head, heart and magnificent voice into each note, each gesture.

Mozart’s librettist and director, Schikaneder, created the part for himself, giving himself the best music and the best gags. Keenlyside likewise relishes every moment, with endless tumbles, somersaults, skids, even a cartwheel, delivered with bendy rag-doll ease.

He looks suitably terrified when his good-time girl Papagena (Kishani Jayasinghe) thunders into view and pounces. In big baggy suit, with braces hanging and crumpled expression on his face, Keenlyside manages to be Chaliapin and Chaplin rolled into one. This is a feat worth experiencing.


Richard Morrison The Times January 30, 2008


If this opera were renamed The Mostly Tolerable Flute it would be a truer description of David McVicar’s five-year-old Royal Opera staging – perpetually shrouded in swirling mists and oppressed by John Macfarlane’s lumbering sets, which seem to have strayed from a particularly bleak production of House of the Dead. And it would be a distinctly flattering description of Roland Böer’s ponderous and unresponsive conducting, which invests Mozart’s score with all the scintillating joie de vivre of a Victorian hymnbook.

No, all the Zauber in this Flöte is supplied by the cast, especially Simon Keenlyside’s truly magical Papageno – which is possibly even more mesmerising now than in 2003. I doubt if there is another singer on the planet who could sustain such a Chaplinesque mixture of clowning and pathos; or pratfall round the stage with such rubber-limbed verve; or bring such wit and point to his delivery of (let us be frank) dead acres of spoken German; or sing with such vibrant tone and unforced expressivity.

Or, indeed, sweep the prodigiously upholstered figure of Kishani Jayasinghe’s vivacious Papagena into his arms with such easy grace. She’s one of two young sopranos who make a big impression in this show. The other is Genia Kühmeier, who seems a totally transformed singer from the erratic beginner who stumbled through La finta giardiniera here in 2006. Her Pamina will never be the last word in tonal beauty, but her sharply focused sound is now hitched to immaculate intonation and considerable lyric intelligence. She phrased her heartrending last aria with exquisite poise.

Christoph Strehl takes time to warm up as Tamino and doesn’t exactly drip with charisma, but his voice is easy on the ear. So is the massive bass in the equally massive frame of Stephen Milling’s Sarastro. Erika Miklósa’s Queen of the Night has one of those strident vibratos that remind me slightly of dentists’ drills, but she nails her stratospheric notes ably enough. And McVicar’s dreary mishandling of her entrances – no lightning, no melodrama; just a lame amble from the back of the stage – hardly gives her much of a theatrical platform on which to build her character.

But that’s typical of McVicar’s muddy approach. One moment he seems to be going along with the opera’s misogynist subtext. The rolling on of a huge, triumphal sun at the end rather suggests that he does approve of Sarastro’s male hierarchy and its somewhat fascistic quest for “enlightenment”. But then he seems to undermine it by showing women muttering fearfully on the fringe of the action.

The Three Ladies and Three Boys are individually strong, but need better conducting; their ensembles are never secure and sometimes slipshod. However, I love John Graham-Hall’s grotesque, angular Monostatos and his Addams Family parade of ghoulish cronies. No, they don’t “black up” – which some critics regarded as a cowardly cop-out in 2003. But I can’t get cross with McVicar for wanting to eliminate the nasty racist streak that Mozart allowed to creep into Zauberflöte, masterpiece or not.

George Hall, The Guardian, 30 January 2008


Rating: Four out of four stars

The trickiest task facing anyone directing Mozart’s Magic Flute is to hold together its seemingly irreconcilable elements – esoteric mysticism and knockabout farce, emotional profundity and rough-hewn naivety – while maintaining constant dramatic momentum. The great virtue of David McVicar’s production, first seen in 2003, and here scrupulously revived by Lee Blakeley, is that it makes this most delicate of balancing acts seem easy.

The blending process is helped by John Macfarlane’s designs. These collate various references to the Flute’s philosophical background in Enlightenment thought, as well as the low pantomime tradition of its magical tricks and even the famous nocturnal panorama designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for a production of the opera in Berlin in 1816, all bathed in the atmospheric chiaroscuro of Paule Constable’s lighting. Yet for all the research that has gone into its visual complexity, the production’s overall impression as experienced in the theatre is one of sheer and vital entertainment.

A lot of this is down to the strength of the first of two casts, among whom Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno once again stands out for his breathtaking accomplishment. He sings his songs with the taste and imagination of a great lieder singer, acts the role inside out, and throws in a level of physical commitment that is nothing short of amazing. This is an unforgettably touching and disarmingly human interpretation.

Nobody else manages quite so much. The new Tamino, Christoph Strehl, is a shade stiff vocally and dramatically, though still more than presentable. Genia Kühmeier, who partners him as Pamina, is no mover either but her singing is impeccable. As the Queen of the Night, Erika Miklosa not only hits all her impossible notes but sings them with a tone as glamorous as her hauteur is regal.

McVicar’s production does not shy away from the spiritual leader Sarastro’s dislikable authoritarian tendencies, but his nobler side is also well presented in Stephen Milling’s realisation. Thomas Allen is the dignified Speaker, Kishani Jayasinghe an irresistible Papagena. And John Graham-Hall makes an enjoyable meal of Monostatos, not so much a head slave as team leader of a jibbering crew of down-at-heel flunkeys, presumably newly dumped on the scrapheap of revolutionary change.

The German conductor Roland Böer adds to the evening’s energy with a pacey account that, in its hurry, leaves singers behind once or twice. His music-making could also do with a bit more character, but the orchestra plays well for him.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 30 January 2008


Die Zauberflöte: Slight flight of fancy

Papageno the bird-catcher may be only the sideshow in Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”) -­ his antics don’t advance or affect the central plot -­ but, when Simon Keenlyside is playing the character, he becomes the absolute focus of the audience’s attention.

A born loser and victim, saved by his Chaplinesque resilience to the buffets and humiliations of a cruel world, he sings the role with forthright ease and fills the action with comic detail impeccably observed down to the last pratfall.

Yet, from my privileged seat in the stalls, this seasoned portrayal now seems a little too artful, a little too calculated in its effects.

Perhaps Keenlyside is now getting too old for such a lightweight role and should drop it from his repertory: meanwhile, I keenly anticipate his debuts in the meatier dramatic challenges of Wozzeck and Rigoletto.

Best of the rest of the cast was the Austrian Genia Kuehmeier as Pamina. After an uncertain start, she showed her mettle in a perfectly gorgeous account of “Ach, ich fuhl’s”. The tone was limpid, the phrasing exquisite, the emotional shading sensitive.

What a pity that her Tamino, Christoph Strehl, was having what I shall charitably assume to be an off-night: his singing of the portrait aria was horribly bumpy, and nothing he uttered subsequently came across cleanly or firmly.

Erika Miklosa made little of the slow and insinuating opening section of the Queen of the Night’s Act 1 aria, but sparkled incandescently when she returned in Act 2. As her antagonist, Sarastro, the warm and mellifluous Stephen Milling seemed somewhat short of awe-inspiring authority and gravitas.

Their respective agents were all vividly played: a well-blended trio of ladies, an endearing trio of boys and John Graham-Hall a repellently epicene Monostatos, all charged up by Roland Boer’s energising conducting, which was swift to the chase, red-blooded, and very much in the theatrical moment.

Lee Blakeley had revived David McVicar’s 2003 solid production. Handsomely designed by John Macfarlane and powerfully lit by Paule Constable, it moves fluently and is never less than sensible and intelligent.

But it doesn’t hold the tricky balance between low kiddies’ pantomime and high moral fable as finely as Nicholas Hytner’s version at ENO, and its mood seems rather ponderously tasteful overall.

Richard Fairman, the Financial Times, 30 January 2008


An everyday ordeal by fire

It looks as if David McVicar’s simple production of Die Zauberflöte is here to stay. On its return this week – this revival, lasting through into March, offers two casts – it looks well rehearsed and skilfully lit. The conceit of staging the opera in a gentle send-up of period style is appealing as far as it goes, but the production sets its sights pretty low. You want hallowed majesty or intellectual vision? Not even Tamino’s magic flute could summon them here.

The unambitious nature of McVicar’s staging is only reinforced by this revival. Roland Böer conducts a trim performance, which keeps tripping along at a nimble pace but rarely aspires to anything higher. The same flick of the wrist that brings lightness and wit to Papageno’s comic music threatens to trivialise any scene with serious intent. Have the trials by fire and water ever seemed less momentous than they do here? The music was deadeningly matter-of-fact, the staging non-existent.

Both casts promise a mix of novelty and experience. Although Mozart’s music imbues Tamino with nobility, the role otherwise remains rather an empty canvas, waiting for the singer to create a rounded portrait. Tenor Christoph Strehl is no Rembrandt. He sings adequately, no more, and leaves the character as a faceless nonentity. Genia Kühmeier, who sang Pamina in Salzburg two years ago, does better. Her wide-eyed innocence is just right and her voice is pure, though it turns to hardness at times.

With no other strong characters around, Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno often seems to have the stage to himself. A veteran of this production, he remains uniquely wry and poignant in the role, a simple, tweed-clad young fellow from the working class, who might have stumbled out of a picture by Lowry. Erika Miklósa is a light-voiced Queen of the Night who sings with pinpoint accuracy on her stratospheric top notes but slides around the coloratura lower down. Stephen Milling brings sensitivity to Sarastro’s music and has a noble speaking voice; the familiar warm baritone of Thomas Allen is a touch lightweight for the Speaker, but he makes every word tell. Overall, they are a decently balanced team. Just be sure to lower your expectations before you go in the door.

David Gutman, The Stage, 30 January 2008


In David McVicar’s thrice revived 2003 Royal Opera production, an
opera both solemn and frivolous makes an oddly dour impression from the recesses of the theatre.

Seen from the stalls, however, the imagination and elegance of the designs snap into focus and the serious-minded  examination of Enlightenment tropes is leavened by elements of upmarket panto and puppetry.

Only the contemporary costuming of Papagena strikes a false note. She seems to have been shopping in Primark while the rest of the cast don period-influenced garb. Act I’s crescent moon and Act II’s rising sun provide especially striking images amid the prevailing gloom.
Several of the protagonists have been here before. Not least Simon Keenlyside who presents his intensely physical, loveable and above all sensitively sung Papageno to an adoring audience. His baritone remains in peak condition quite apart from the other qualities he brings to the role. Erika Miklosa’s Queen of the Night is a less volatile theatrical presence, but she combines vibrant East European timbre with crystalline neatness and control. Less perfectly pitched is Christoph Strehl’s Tamino in a house debut that against expectations fails to inspire – the characterisation is patrician, the voice strained up top. First night nerves? Stephen Milling is physically imposing and predictably Wagnerian as Sarastro, John Graham-Hall enliveningly seedy as a pale-faced, diabolical Monostatos. Genia Kuhmeier’s girlish Pamina, is pure and strong if not exactly sublime.

There is plenty of life left in a lavish production which will no doubt run and run even without its star performance.

Michael Darvell, classicalsource.com, 30 January 2008


This, the third revival of David McVicar’s 2003 production of “Die Zauberflöte”, returns to Covent Garden for twelve performances with two casts. With Cast A, several performers stand out. They are Christoph Strehl as Tamino and Simon Keenlyside as Papageno. Their opposite numbers are equally strong, in Genia Kühmeier’s excellent reading of Pamina and Kishani Jayasinghe’s deliciously tarty Papagena (the latter is in both casts).

Strehl is making his Royal Opera debut and a very auspicious one it is, too. The German tenor makes Tamino a very serious fellow and  he has the voice to support the role. There is power in spades for this character’s journey through the initiation rituals of fire, water, air and earth in order to overcome the fear of death. Strehl is blessed with a beautiful voice capable of evoking varying shades of emotion.

Having mostly heard the opera sung in English, it is good to hear it again in the original German, which here seems more expressive than ever. The Pamina of Kühmeier is also extremely well sung and acted.

Simon Keenlyside has made Papageno one of his signature roles, taking it to La Scala, Metropolitan Opera, Paris, Vienna and Salzburg. Without tipping over the edge into downright farce, he does a sort of Marx Brothers job on the role, making it zany and yet almost believable. I don’t recall ever seeing such a physical performance of the role as he rushes around, leaping all over the shop, bouncing here, bounding there and in between picking his nose or spitting. It is a truly comedic performance.

“The Magic Flute” can be an odd mixture of ritual and fun that do not necessarily meld together satisfactorily. David McVicar’s production (here revived by Lee Blakeley) combines both elements into a seamless staging that delights from start to finish. Other joys are to be found in Erika Miklósa’s effortless performance of the Queen of the Night’s aria, Anna Leese, Liora Grodnikaite and Gaynor Keble  as the Three Ladies, and Andrew Mott, Nick Hampson and Thomas Pinsker as the Three Boys. Good work too comes from Stephen Milling as Sarastro, John Graham-Hall as Monostatos and Thomas Allen as the Speaker of the Temple. After a sluggish overture, Roland Böer keeps tempos on the move.

Apart from the vocal felicities, John Macfarlane’s designs and Paule Constable’s lighting add much to the success of the production, from the fearsome, giant serpent at the beginning, which looks like ‘Nessie’ has come home, through the star-laden designs, to the walking and pecking bird that Papageno chases like a demented Harpo Marx, and the dreadlocked Darth Vader-like characters who are the Men in Armour.

This staging just cries out to be enjoyed. It is certainly a palpable hit.

Jim Pritchard, Seen and Heard, 28 January 2008


This 1791 Singspiel ‘The Magic Flute’ in two acts was the culmination of Mozart’s increasing involvement by the composer with Emanuel Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe that since 1789 had been the resident company at the Freihaustheater auf der Wieden in Vienna. Mozart was a close friend of one of the singer-composers in the troupe, Benedikt Schack (the first Tamino), and had contributed to the compositions of the troupe, which were often collaboratively written. A year earlier in 1790 Mozart participated in Schikaneder’s collaborative opera Der Stein der Weisen (‘The Philosopher’s Stone’), including the duet (‘Nun liebes Weibchen’ K592a) and perhaps other passages. Like Zauberflöte, Der Stein der Weisen was a fairy-tale opera and a sort of precursor since it employed much the same cast in similar roles. Die Zauberflöte is noted for its prominent Masonic elements; both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera depicts the triumph of reason over despotism and is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and can be regarded as an allegory propounding enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night is the dangerous form of obscurantism, whilst her antagonist Sarastro is the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight. The libretto also contains a racial stereotype in the form of Monostatos (who makes unwelcome advances to Pamina mainly because he is a Moor i.e. black) and equally dreadful misogyny (all  women are subservient to men).

My opinion has always been that these are historical pieces and are what they are. We do not alter other works of art such as paintings and some literature if they contain something that offends our sensibilities today, so why do this to opera? Why not confront these issues rather than simply expunge all references to Monostatos’s colour from the work? In David McVicar’s 2003 production (here restaged by Lee Blakeley) he is some periwigged powdered fop with similarly dressed chorus line cronies – it may be a funny characterisation but it is light-years from Mozart’s intentions.

Yet lines like ‘Without a man a woman cannot fulfil her destiny’, ‘First duty of Brotherhood is to be aware of the wiles of woman’ and ‘Our sanctuary has been profaned … send these women to hell’ pass the censor untouched. This suggests that misogyny is not as bad as racism, which is very interesting.

Although this is the third revival of this production, this  was the first time I had seen it. John Macfarlane’s atmospheric sets are monumental and seem to have been recycled from almost any Elijah Moshinsky staging of a Verdi opera. Walls scribbled over with esoteric symbols also appear to have been picked up by Keith Warner for his Covent Garden Ring. The Three Ladies and the Queen of the Night are costumed like sci-fi alien creatures which, I suppose, takes on cues from the libretto. Most of the other costumes, furniture and scientific apparatus shown would be from late-eighteenth century Vienna, the time the opera was composed. To add the fairytale elements there is a wonderfully large serpent and some splendid animal masks.

Throughout the productions though there is a deliberate lack of artifice that the Viennese with their fondness for illusion on stage would not have appreciated. The serpent is manipulated by the stage crew, as is the bird (which looks suspiciously like a road-runner) that Papageno attempts to capture on his first entry to the stage; and things like a glass of wine arise from below stage in someone’s hand. There is also a movement group used here, who  are not separately acknowledged and who, choreographed by Leah Hausman, depict both flickering flames in Act II and gently swaying water both enhanced by Paule Constable’s lighting. The Three Boys’ da Vinci inspired flying machine has some very visible ‘health and safety’ support.

The international cast is solid without being outstanding. I could be accused of xenophobia of course (to add to Mozart’s racism and misogyny) but my first Covent Garden Zauberflöte nearly thirty years ago contained a wealth of home-grown artists such as Stuart Burrows, Thomas Allen, Kiri Te Kanawa, Robert Lloyd, Donald McIntyre, Lillian Watson, Paul Crook and Robert Tear in leading roles, something that sadly it would be impossible to recreate now for various reasons not to be debated here. The best singing at the first night was divided between a British baritone, an Austrian soprano, a Danish bass, a Hungarian soprano and a Sri Lankan one.

As Tamino German tenor Christoph Strehl was making his debut with The Royal Opera. His sound was rather tightly produced and together with his rather pallid characterisation was not to my liking, though it did gain more warmth as the evening went on. The Three Ladies (Anna Leese, Liora Grodnikaite and Gaynor Keeble) though looking like they were auditioning as Valkyries were vocally rather indistinct throughout. Thomas Allen, a former Papageno, was sadly a shadow of his former self and miscast as the Speaker of the Temple. But John Graham-Hall flounced to good and seedy effect as Monostatos.

Erika Miklósa was a compelling Queen of the Night hitting her top Fs with consummate coloratura ease. As Pamina, Genia Kühmeier projected her role as well as anyone during the evening and sang a very emotionally affecting ‘Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden’. Stephen Milling used his wonderful bass to cavernous effect as a more-than-usually avuncular Sarastro,  but I thought him a bit too static and that he could have benefited from more direction. Kishani Jayasinghe, one of Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists, is making an impression with everything she currently singing – her  Giannetta was one of the best things about the recent L’elisir d’amore. Here she participates in an interesting ‘take’ on the role of Papagena, who goes from an alcohol swigging lush with headscarf and dark glasses to an Essex ladette in pink skirt, white stilettos and hooped ear rings. It was a great comedic portrayal without being a charming as Papagena perhaps should be.

Most of the vocal honours go to Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno. His interpretation is part Charlie Chaplin in baggy trousers and part Lee Evans slapstick. Cartwheels, birdsong and a leap onto a chaise longue are part of his hyperactive performance that tries, I suspect, to over-compensate for the inertia elsewhere on stage. Is he the best Papageno I have ever seen? Not quite: undoubtedly that was Hermann Prey but Keenlyside runs him close second although I would have liked slightly better use made of the German words –   a problem, it seems,  for British singers except for John Tomlinson of course. Keenlyside’s horrified looks when Papagena tottered – high on her heels –  into view and then pounced on him were wonders to behold.

The chorus made their usual incisive contribution and the German conductor, Roland Böer, conducted a very vibrant and fleet-footed performance that did not seek any new revelations and if anything played up the profundity of the work a touch too ponderously. In conclusion, despite the longueurs of the spoken German dialogue not really attacked with any great enthusiasm by the polyglot cast, except perhaps Harry Nicoll as First Priest, the performance went by quickly and enjoyably. Too few nights at the opera are like that.

Dr. Dominik Zenner, Operapoint.de,11.2.2008

Besuchte Aufführung: 2. Februar 2008

” … Simon Keenlyside, der schon 2003 den Papageno am Royal Opera House sang, war das wahre Highlight des Abends: er verband einen gesanglich einwandfreien Papageno mit einer wahrlich herausragenden schauspielerischen Leistung, die ursprünglich und tatsächlich erheiternd wirkte. …”

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