The Magic Flute, English National Opera, The Coliseum

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Well, I’ve finally popped by operatic cherry and, to my surprise, it wasn’t at all painful – unless you count the seats in the gods at the Coliseum that is.

Opera has always intimidated me; the vocal acrobatics in a foreign tongue, the formidable divas in huge velvet frocks, the gymnastic feats of opera singers that, to those in the know are breathtaking, but to plebs like me sometimes a little bit “nails-on-blackboard”. But I was ready to emerge myself in the warbling world of opera with the English National Opera’s The Magic Flute. 

The Magic Flute, an opera so barmy it makes the average ballet look like a documentary, seemed like a good place to start with its simple story and unintimidating score, while the ENO the perfect company for an opera virgin. It would also seem that the company’s 14th revival of Nicholas Hytner’s once barrier-breaking (in opera terms) production was an even better first opera, littered as it is with innuendo, slapstick and light-comedy. Plus it was in English and there were talky-bits, so I was never going to be foundering storywise.I had many preconceptions about the opera, and nearly all of them (last night at least) were well and truly busted.

Despite knowing the daft pantomime-meets-fairytale story of Mozart’s opera, I was still expecting much po-faceness, but this production performed all the silliness with a knowing wink, often accentuating it with colloquialisms and knowing-asides. Duncan Rock as an Australian Papageno was particularly pantomime, all “strewths” and “sheilas”, all brilliantly pitched, both vocally and character-wise. The whole performance was peppered with some proper chucklesome moments and some delightful stage settings – people dressed as bears, Pagageno and Pagagena hovering above the stage in a birdsnest, the moonlight giving way to a majestic sunrise.

Despite the unexpected, and at first, welcomed, talky-bits (I’ve since learnt that The Magic Flute is a “spiegel”, a part-speaking opera – they’ll even let me into the Royal Opera House with that kind of knowledge) I began to find them a distraction. The performers are, of course, wonderful singers, but, for many of them, their acting wouldn’t get them past the audition door for an extras role in Casualty so I found it rather jarring as they rather clunkily switched from fabulous arias to stilted dialogue.

But the singing really was lovely, rather more lovely than this philistine expected. Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night was particularly wonderful. She was no screecher, despite reaching Shard-like heights her tone was beautiful, with a real clarity, purity and warmth to it. She also got to wear the best frock (the one thing I expected from an opera, and got, was fabulous gowns), just pipping her resplendent maids to the prize.
On the strength of this production I would definitely dig out my opera glasses again – maybe I’m even ready for an all-Italian, bombastic affair?

by Suzanne Elliott

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