There is some irony in the fact that women are totally disenfranchised in the court of Sarastro in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote and yet in this production by David McVicar (in its sixth revival) it is clearer than ever that the true spiritual journey is the one taken by Pamina, the heroine who is abducted “for her own good” and thereafter kept in the dark throughout the proceedings. This is not a new problem for contemporary productions of this opera but this one chooses not to take the easy option and play for laughs but to take the serious matters of truth, spirituality, tests of faith and even the masonic symbolism on their own merits.
This is not to say there are no laughs. Roderick Williams as Papageno gives a master class in comedic timing and was in great voice throughout. He was well supported by Christina Gansch successfully releasing Papagena’s inner chav and a hilariously knowing goose (full marks to the puppeteers) only caught by devious means by the bird-catcher. And, of course, Papageno’s glockenspiel charms the ghastly Monostatos (Peter Bronder giving a fine impression of a dastardly Uncle Feste) and his gang into their antic dance.
But back to Pamina. She is gloriously sung by the Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg who goes from strength to strength throughout the evening. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, so often a cypher for wickedness (aka female power) is in this production a show stealer. Sabine Devieilhe puts in an outstanding performance not just in her thrilling coloratura but as a magnificently manipulative character. This is not something often managed with the cardboard cut-out of a hero, Tamino, though Mauro Peter does his best to salvage some humanity in the part.
It is all played out against a set of monumental proportions (by John MacFarlane) and esoteric symbolism. Egyptian eyes of Horus, a glowing crescent moon, a sky mapped out by constellations, an orrery (studied by a little boy, the girl being busy with her needlework) and the blazing golden “Enlightenment” sun all appear in a production that seems to take Freemasonry seriously. This is tricky. When Sarastro opines “Without a man, a woman cannot fulfil her destiny” the audience titters nervously. Later he advises Tamino to “beware the wiles of women.”
To be honest, we’d all be lost without them. With the exception of Papageno, it is the women in this production who are truly outstanding and that even reaches down into the orchestra pit. An amazed Korean gentleman sitting next to me asked in the interval if that really was a woman conductor. It seems we aren’t yet quite clear of eighteenth-century preconceptions. Julia Jones led the ROH orchestra at a cracking pace that captured every moment of joy and humour in a musically magnificent evening.
Die Zauberflote at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London until 14th October 2017. Production images by Tristram Kenton. For more information and tickets please visit the website.