Packed with pretty tunes and the thrilling challenge of the Queen of the Night’s second aria Der Hölle Rache, Mozart's final work for the stage is one of the world's most beloved operas. There's no denying the sheer peculiarity of the story, however. There's a prince on a quest, but it's no ordinary quest: Tamino must venture not through dragon-infested forests but through a symbolic landscape of Reason to overcome darkness, find Enlightenment and get the girl. Simon McBurney's new production for ENO embraces the strangeness, plays up the comedy, and adds a sprinkling of theatrical magic.
The only set is a large platform that, raised in different ways, is transformed into a mountainside, a rocky outcrop, a dungeon or a large boardroom table. With the mechanics of set and staging exposed, the production demands we suspend disbelief and enter into the imaginary world of the production. Visibility is a key theme of McBurney's staging - we see the musicians who play the flute and glockenspiel; we see operator inside the glass-walled Foley studio at one side of the stage; we see the videographer working live on the other side with silhouettes and chalkboard drawings made live in time to the music.
McBurney brings to the opera - which can suffer from being performed in staid, oratorio-style stasis - a lively physicality which will be familiar to Complicite's audiences. The Three Ladies scramble over the rocky landscape to reach Tamino; the Queen of the Night (German soprano Cornelia Götz) patrols the scene in a wheelchair, and Tamino and Pamina's ordeal by water must be seen to be believed. Papageno's birds are sheets of music fluttered by a flock of actors; the effect is wondrously beautiful.
Devon Guthrie is a winsome Pamina and James Creswell brings gravitas and a rich bass tone to the Lodge-chief figure of Sarastro, but the evening belongs to Roland Wood with his warm comic turn as aging birdcatcher Papageno. Already a firm favourite with opera audiences worldwide, this delightful new production will surely win new fans for Mozart's magical-masonic tale.
The Magic Flute is at the Coliseum until 7 December. Book online at http://www.eno.org/. Londonist saw this performance on a free review ticket.