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The Magic Flute at London Coliseum

Erik Nielsen
The Times (UK)

By Neil Fisher

Nicholas Hytner's venerable English National Opera staging still manages to be a comic triumph by laughing at itself

The last time that the golden sun of Enlightenment gently unfurled across the stage of the Coliseum, we were all supposed to be saying goodbye: not just to the forces of evil, banished in the course of Mozart’s Magic Flute, but also to Nicholas Hytner’s venerable English National Opera staging, due for official retirement two seasons ago. Yet here it is again, and on opening night no one seemed to be talking about pensioning it off. Most were too busy laughing.

Venerable is actually the wrong word for Hytner’s show. It may have lasted 21 years, but its spirit is still impish, even if some of the fauna — the stuffed snake, the matted bear suits — have started to look a little moth-eaten. But otherwise this revival, ably steered by Ian Rutherford, preserves its spirit with gusto. On first night, it even managed to claw comic triumph from the temporary disaster of two flesh and blood doves flapping determinedly away from their cage.

The moment worked because laughing at itself is what this production does best. Even if Mozart’s fairytale does give us a triumph of 18th-century morals, exemplified by the wise Sarastro, there’s a crack in Bob Crowley’s set through which Hytner pours the pranks. And when the virtuous Tamino and Pamina do finally step up to inherit Sarastro’s mantle, they do it with the laughing spirit of Papageno underscoring their pomposity. It’s the same impulse that drives Erik Nielsen’s fizzing conducting (an auspicious London debut), which keeps the score wonderfully buoyant without skimping on its warmth and humanity.

The other big star of the night is Papageno himself. Is it Roderick Williams’s full-body quiver when he dreams of a “thousand girls in my harem”? The bluff Yorkshire tones that make “and it were all going so well!” seem like the wittiest line ever spoken? Well, that and singing that is as noble and pliant as his theatrics are rude and direct.

This is, in fact, mostly a night for the men. Robert Murray’s Tamino is fervently sung, and if Robert Lloyd’s Sarastro could be steadier on the consonants, it is still a mighty sound that the veteran bass produces. And he delivers the spoken text as if it really matters and is not just filler.

Otherwise, the singing is decent if not dazzling.

Sarah-Jane Davies’s Pamina is secure of voice but stagily delivered. Emily Hindrichs’s brittle Queen of the Night is hard-pressed in a theatre this size, and Amanda Forbes’s Papagena should be punchier. Restoring the gender balance somewhat are a suitably bitchy trio of ladies, Kate Valentine’s soprano the strongest. The last throw of the dice for this show? Don’t you bet on it.