If you had to choose suitable family entertainment for a Christmas matinee, you might not think of a three-hour sanctimonious opera packed with dialogue in German. On the other hand, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Covent Garden only allows itself the title of Die Zauberflöte in English) has some of the most compelling and adorable music in the repertoire and, in the right hands, some of the scenes funniest comedians.
So it’s a delicate balance, but all the credit goes to Covent Garden for providing four lunchtime performances in this revival of David McVicar’s classic 2003 production: on that first morning, the hall of all ages was crowded and attentive, the surtitles elicited a few bursts of laughter, as well as a few embarrassed chuckles at the obvious misogyny of the librettist.
On one level the opera’s plot is hopelessly complex and convoluted, but on another blissfully simple: Prince Tamino and Pamina seek enlightenment through a series of trials and gain admission to the initiates of the temple of Sarastro; while the fowler Papageno has no such ambitions and longs only for joyful sensuality in the hands of Papagena.
The production of McVicar, which holds these two strands in a clever balance, is revived here by Angelo Smimmo. It benefits from John Macfarlane’s huge and beautiful sets, creating unforgettable stage images – the elaborate planetary in the scholarly temple of Sarastro, the rain-soaked window that begins the finale, and the crushing sun that brings some much-needed sparkle at the end. . Wizards bustle with the magic flute and magic bells, the animals conjured up by Tamino’s flute are couples resembling Noah’s ark, Papageno’s countless descendants are already evident, and only the true trials of fire and water at the climax of the opera are disappointing.
The flexible and active conductor Maxim Emelyanychev carried the piece forward with clear and fresh textures, but at times his insistence left the singers a little stuck. The star of this cast (there are others during the run) is Gyula Orendt as the high-spirited and lovable Papageno. We’ve been asked indulgence for Anna Prohaska’s cold-stricken Pamina, but her sense of line and elegance is ideal for the role (more so than Filipe Manu’s eloquent but rather colorless Tamino).
As his evil mother the Queen of the Night, Aigul Khismatullina produced some of the most punchy coloratura one could hope to hear, and his three ladies Alexandra Lowe, Gabriele Kupšytė and Kseniia Nikolaieva were fiercely temperamental. The three excellent boys who guide the quest from their aerial chariot were led by a girl, Emily Barton – couldn’t she have been portrayed as a woman, in a small gesture against the male-dominated world of opera?
In the end, the utter balance and memorization of Mozart’s sublimely popular music tops everything, even the German dialogue. Well worth the trip.
In rep until January 28. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk