The Magic Flute, Coliseum, London – review

When English National Opera decided to say goodbye to its longstanding production of The Magic Flute, it was clear the company needed an eye-catching replacement. Mozart’s magical opera is an important draw for family audiences and this new production by innovative theatre company Complicite may do the trick in their eyes, though it misses much of the opera’s natural appeal.

In its favour Complicite’s take on The Magic Flute is entirely distinctive. Faced with the opera’s many challenges, Simon McBurney has put forward a pure, theatrical solution: the stage is bare and on either side members of the company can be seen creating the visual and sound effects. Portraits appear from thin air, illustrations of animals in a book come alive – and all, the production tells us, nothing but simple stagecraft.

Thus far Complicite could be expected to work its magic, but much of the rest is confused and has a rather cold feel to it, as though the opera has become a theatrical experiment and no more. The central couple in modern dress seem too plain, partly because Ben Johnson lacks aristocratic demeanour, though he sings with strength and sensitivity, partly because Devon Guthrie makes a workaday Pamina. Roland Wood’s Papageno is hampered by having to play the role as a grumpy new age traveller from the north, losing most of Papageno’s charm (and it does not help that there is far too much dialogue). Nor is it easy to choose between Right and Wrong when Cornelia Götz’s small-voiced Queen of the Night is pitted against creepily faceless board members in grey suits at the Temple of the Sun, splendidly though James Creswell’s Sarastro leads them with his imposing bass voice.

Steven Page is an authoritative Speaker, Mary Bevan a nicely bright Papagena, and there are good trios of women and boys – but why are the latter three wizened old men (or is that Spielberg’s ET back on earth with his two brothers)? Young conductor Gergely Madaras has the advantage of the orchestra raised up in a high pit and keeps a modern style of musical performance rather inflexibly on the go. With the dialogue tightened up, this might be a slick family show. If only they could find the human warmth lost along the way.

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