Die Zauberflöte can be a bit of an embarrassment to stage these days. In reality it has always been so for one reason or another. In the past it has been accused of being a clunky and childish opera, but today the creaking sound of unease in the seats comes mainly from the opera’s slightly peculiar pronouncements on women. Even when that is dealt with there are other more minor peculiarities to also address, like the blacked up villain Monostatos. Some of these discomfitures are not entirely due to recent changes in sensibilities either. Ingmar Bergman, who made a film version of the opera in 1975, noted that “there is a disdain for women in The Magic Flute which is difficult to cope with”. That there is a disdain for women is incontrovertible, but what its exact significance is in the context of the opera is less easy to pin down.
Most modern productions have an apologetic feel to them, introducing elements to counteract or side step the more controversial aspects. There was a particularly heavy handed example of this at Glyndebourne this summer. This revival by Bárbara Lluch of David McVicar’s production from 2003 is altogether gentler on the opera, if slightly unimaginative in its interpretation, and takes The Magic Flute largely as it is. It is sparing in the use of Masonic symbols but the main contrasting themes of the opera are all clearly delineated; darkness and light, reason and unreason and virtue and depravity. It is a traditional and harmless production that does well to fill the auditorium and partly explains why we are now into its seventh revival. On the opening night there wasn’t an empty seat in sight.
The Magic Flute was of course a huge success from the moment it first appeared at the Theater auf der Wieden in 1791 and is still good for the box office. It also allows the Royal Opera to get away with fielding a junior cast. English tenor Benjamin Hulett sings a slightly more rugged Tamino than than one might be used to. Singing opposite him, Elsa Dreisig takes till the latter part of act two to find her voice as Pamina. She sings the two despairing scenes, first where Pamina thinks herself to have been rejected and the second when contemplating suicide, with great fragility and delicacy. German bass Andreas Bauer Kanabas is a mellow toned Sarastro who is far more sympathetic and less authoritarian in the timbre of his voice than many others in this role. Vito Priante’s Papageno lacks charisma and a comic touch but his Papagena, Yaritza Veliz, sizzled in her cameo role. It was also good to see Royal Opera House perineal Donald Maxwell as the second priest.
Bernard Shaw once wrote that people mistook The Magic Flute for “a vapid tawdry tomfoolery for showing off a soprano with a high F and a bass with a low F”. Of course part of that is true, especially when it comes to that soprano with a high F. Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala delivered the goods with a powerful and unfaltering performance as the Queen of the Night with crystal clear piercing notes.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House started off with crisp punchy playing but became increasingly jolting and pensive in a number of passages. Not the finest evenings work under conductor Leo Hussain.