McBurney’s Flute, and ETO’s stylish Idomeneo

The Magic Flute, Coliseum

Idomeneo, Hackney Empire

Like Ko-Ko’s ‘little list’ in The Mikado, there’s a moment in The Magic Flute which seems designed for topical allusion. As the Freemasons prepare to choose their new leader ‘in this hour of crisis’, Sarastro urges them to take their decision ‘with the utmost gravity’ – and in Simon McBurney’s production these words are addressed, with heavy emphasis, to the audience. In the last revival they chimed with the fact that ENO was surrounded by enemies trying to destroy the company; with this new revival the existential threat comes from Brexit.

ENO The Magic Flute 2019, Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino and Thomas Oliemans as Papageno © Donald CooperRupert Charlesworth as Tamino and Thomas Oliemans as Papageno © Donald Cooper

People love this extraordinary production, particularly the bond struck up in it between performers and audience. This is not just because the huge cast periodically spills over into the auditorium, or because the orchestra is woven into the action; it’s more because the whole evening becomes a gigantic game of perception and illusion, which begins with the (in real-time) chalk-drawn imagery morphing into 3D reality on several levels at once – we might be watching a work being created on the spot.

With the sound-effects artist presiding wittily in her kitchenette, and with a flock of doves suggested by fluttering sheets of paper, the anarchic imagination implied by the score finds its complement in this staging enriched by a troupe of Complicité actors. The floating and tilting platform on which the singers perilously perch may be way too busy, but it does permit some startling moments, and helps justify the pervasive references to Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Rupert-Charlesworth-and-Lucy-Crowe (c) Donald CooperRupert Charlesworth and Lucy Crowe © Donald Cooper

Julia Bauer’s old-crone Queen of the Night may lack power and presence, but Lucy Crowe as her feisty daughter sings gloriously, her despairing aria in Act Two being a marvel of delicately-inflected artistry; Rupert Charlesworth, as Tamino, delivers the purest and most unforced lyricism. And while the Three Ladies constitute a highly accomplished triple-act, the three boys really do come over as infant ancients. Though his routines are at times overdone and unfunny, Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno is suitably irrepressible; Jonathan Lemalu brings ironical gravitas to the Speaker, and Brindley Sherratt makes a splendidly dominating Sarastro. Flautist Claire Wickes, looking almost like Pamina’s double, takes her on-stage solos with panache.

Meanwhile English Touring Opera are taking a stylish production of Mozart’s Idomeneo round the country. James Conway’s sure-footed direction is supported by Frankie Bradshaw’s restrained but effective designs which revolve round the simulacrum of a Minoan stone palace. The strength of this show lies in its close-up focus on the central dilemma – should Idomeneo sacrifice his son Idamante to save his city from the wrath of the gods? – and on the consequent dilemmas for everyone else. With Galina Averina and Paula Sides as Ilia and Elettra, and Christopher Turner as an intensely expressive Idomeneo, the singing is fine throughout. Tomorrow they are in Chester, and thereafter in Wolverhampton, York, Sheffield and Cambridge: catch them if you can.


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