Swayed by the murmurs about its "classic" status, I went to ENO's Magic Flute, worried that I might miss its final outing. Obviously nostalgia has tinted the spectacles of the chorus of sighing admirers, as Hytner's production is about as literal and vanilla (read: plain) as you can get. Maybe all those aeons ago when Noah was loading the Papagenos onto the arc, this may have been original and illuminating as a take on Mozart's most elusive opera, but it never once seeks to interpret what the piece might mean beyond the most general and literal "light and dark" metaphors. True to its roots in Singspiel, Die Zauberflote is an evening of pure entertainment dressed up in dubious philosophical garb: whatever the higher intention of the work's creators, the plot and Schikaneder's libretto are very, very silly, and that Mozart responds to it with music of such noble warmth, charm and beauty is a difficult thing to reconcile artistically. But there has to be an attempt!
In this production (perhaps only this revival?) there is clumsiness everywhere: the single set creaks and squeals as it shifts; characters say farewell and then exit via the same door; they gain, lose, and regain items of costume without reasonable explanation; sound effects regularly interfere with the music and sound shoddy and unconvincing. The acting would seem crass and hammy if witnessed in a Christmas panto, with the most exaggerated and laboured use of silly voices and accents, ridiculously clichéd delivery of serious lines and ceaselessly bad comedic timing such that real sentiment and believable characterisation are studiously (and successfully) avoided.
Vocally at least, things were much better. Most treasurable is Elena Xanthoudakis whose ultra shiny and youthfully pure soprano is absolutely ideal for Pamina. She sounded best when she let herself go a bit volume wise, easily filling the Coliseum's dry acoustics with silvery ribbons of legato. Duncan Rock was an impressive Papageno, with his beefy, rich baritone ringing out clearly if not always subtly, though he was guilty of the biggest excesses acting wise. I often found myself cringing at his delivery of the spoken dialogue. Robert Lloyd's voice is still impressively massive and rich and deep (I can't quite believe that he's sounding this good at 72!) but it has crept almost entirely into his nose. (My companion quipped: Is there actually any sound coming out of his mouth?). Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night sounded very beautiful in her Act I aria, though the voice is very much on the small side for this role. Unfortunately she was slightly out of tune in the iconic high flying passages of Der Holle Rache, with unsupported, thin high notes. Roland Wood revealed a wonderful bass-baritone in the small role of the Speaker - let's get him back soon please! Shawn Mathey's Tamino was the cast's weakest link, sounding a little hoarse and with appallingly wooden acting.
In the opening minutes of the overture I thought we were in for a very special night from the pit as conductor Nicholas Collon seemed to be getting a very lovely and clean, though warm HIP sound out of the ENO orchestra. Unfortunately it remained merely pleasant, lacking sufficient contrast in dynamics or colour, and not enough body in the sound to really support the singers. The biggest casualty was Pamina's Ach, ich fuhl's which was played secco and as a result completely failed to move. A more fundamental problem was the very frequent coordination issues between the pit and stage with singers regularly getting ahead of the orchestra. A little disappointing and I'm mystified by the misty-eyed reverence that this production inspires!