Go to WNO’s ‘Magic Flute', but only for the music
Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”) is a masterpiece. It sets the realm of night and obscurantism against that of daylight and rational thinking. These opposing worlds are ruled respectively by the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, named after the great Iranian prophet Zoroaster. Music lovers may know of him as Zarathustra in Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, based on Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name. Its opening passage, depicting sunrise, is famously used for the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There is depth there, as there should be in The Magic Flute with its allegorical plot, written by Emanuel Schikaneder. The Queen of the Night enlists Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from Sarastro’s clutches. But the two young people find a natural home among the high ideals of Sarastro’s community, while the Queen and her allies are vanquished. In the end there are two married couples, the noble Tamino and Pamina, and the simple bird catcher Papageno with the pretty young Papagena. To find his match, Tamino has to undergo serious trials, but Papageno merely has to promise to marry an old lady who magically turns out to be Papagena.
In the original 1791 production of what is actually a Singspiel or light opera with spoken dialogue, the bird catcher Papageno, who gladly takes credit for rescuing Tamino from a serpent, was played by Schikaneder himself. Here it was an entertainingly world-weary Quirijn De Lang, with Trystan Llyr Griffiths as an excellent Tamino singing with noble integrity. British-American soprano Julia Sitkovetsky hit the high notes for Queen of the Night, a coloratura role originally written for Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer. Jonathan Lemalu sang a sonorous Sarastro. With Raven McMillon as Pamina and Jenny Stafford as Papagena singing with sincerity, Welsh National Opera’s Magic Flute was a delightful vocal performance.
The same cannot be said for the pantomime-like production by Daisy Evans, whose vernacular reinterpretation of the German libretto lost much of the poetry. The themes of Zauberflöte are timeless, but she has tried too hard to modernise them, saying in a programme essay, “I want to present a modern fable that questions binary and prejudice.” Quite how this was helped by turning Monostatos (Alun Rhys-Jenkins) into a flashy dealer and the two armed men into beefy comedy turns with cockney accents was not clear to me.
There was no flute and no bells, but the singing was very fine, with Nazan Fikret, Kezia Bieneck and Claire Barnett-Jones as the Queen’s three ladies, and a superb trio of boys: Sophie Williams, Carys Davies and Llinos Haf Jones who sang their trouser roles beautifully. The score was given a light touch under the baton of Paul Daniel, but the fine musicality was spoiled by the assertive reinterpretation of the libretto.
After the performances at Cardiff, this production tours to Llandudno, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton and Plymouth, from 29 March to 27 May.
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