Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - Royal Opera House, 31 January 2008 and 7 February 2008
As Die Zauberflöte is one of my all-time favourites, and as the Royal Opera House has seen fit to assemble a 'B' cast so strong it should more properly be called just an 'alternative' cast, I decided I just had to see this production twice.
Admittedly it's not the most coherent or stimulating of productions. David McVicar tries just a little too hard to appeal to all corners. There's a lot of olde-style set dressing and costumery for the traditionalists, but enough anachronistic modern touches to counter any accusations of stodginess. The spoken sections are faithfully retained in full, in all their tedium, but any racist overtones are swindled out by recreating the black Monostatos as an ageing white fop. Man-held creatures offer a half-hearted nod to 18th century theatrical practices that isn't followed through or even integrated properly . And there's plenty of cleavage and thigh boots for anyone who doesn't care about any of the above. It's the eclipse of enlightenment by popular entertainment. Give me Nicholas Hytner's beautiful, thoughtful and inexplicably-retired ENO production any day. But Mozart has survived worse, and while the production may be superficial, it is at least not irritating. And it thrilled plenty of Amazon reviewers on its first, DVDd for posterity, outing.
In the first cast, Simon Keenlyside's Papageno stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast - as much down to weaknesses in their performances as strength in his. Rolling and tumbling like a trained acrobat, singing beautifully of course, his presence animated every scene he was in.
Christopher Maltman offered a different, and in many ways more touching Papageno in cast B. While there's something almost slick about Keenlyside's clowning, and something crafty about his evasions, Maltman offered a simpler, more vulnerable character, more of a witless fool buffeted about by life's complications. I admired the skill of Keenlyside's portrayal of Papageno, but I warmed more to Maltman.
When it came to the central couple of Tamino and Pamina, there was less of a contest. Cast A's Christoph Strehl and Genia Kühmeier would seem on this showing to be fine singers, and I look forward very much to Genia Kühmeier's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in April . But neither had a great deal of presence, nor, it seemed, enough direction/rehearsal to get them much past the shuffling and hand-wringing stage. In Strehl's case, he took a very long time to get going vocally, with only his final aria really having the projection to reach my amphitheatre eyrie.
Cast B's Pavol Breslik and Kate Royal were in a different class. Tamino is a notoriously drippy role in the wrong hands. It takes real presence and charisma to make something of it, and Breslik asserted himself at once. The dashing charm and the big bright voice were perfect. Kate Royal's Pamina simply glowed. Aside from some intonation problems in her first aria, she gave a sparky, vital performance. These two were, properly, at the centre of the performance every time they were on stage.
The first Sarastro, Stephen Milling, is a singer I admire hugely, but I found him untypically subdued and unassertive in this role. Sarastro #2, Hans-Peter König, definitely shaded it in terms of dramatic presence, but neither really disappointed in any way.
Queens of the Night Erika Miklósa (in the A cast) and Anna Kristiina Kaappola (in the B) were both fabulous. Miklósa displayed greater ease with the coloratura (it was evident Kaappola was at top stretch), but Kaappola was a more vital and vengeful stage presence. The all-round greater dramatic prowess of the second cast made me wonder if they'd maybe benefitted from more rehearsal time than than the first set - certainly they all seemed to have a clearer idea of what they were supposed to be doing.
Kishani Jayasinghe (Papagena), the one constant in all casts, made the most of her brief part and suffered her '80's discowear bravely. Her acting skills weren't quite adequate compensation for the ineffective 'old lady' disguise of her closing scene, and as a result this was rather confusing, but she sang prettily and had terrific comic timing.
Roland Böer conducted both times, vibrantly and confidently. Co-ordination between stage and pit was perfect, and if the orchestra played a note wrong, then I didn't notice it. Why, I may even have to go back again.