Magazine article The Spectator

Papageno Reigns

Magazine article The Spectator

Papageno Reigns

Article excerpt

Opera

Papageno reigns

Die Zauberflote; Semele Royal Opera House Die Zauberflote Royal College of Music

This is the end of a season of Zauberfloten, varying takes on Mozart's last operatic masterpiece, possibly not his greatest opera, but containing a lot of his noblest, most stirring, elevating music; and, despite its chaotic action, some of his most affecting characterisation. The Royal Opera has already revived its new production from last January, and the Royal College of Music has just mounted its own estimable account.

Of all the season's productions, it was David McVicar's that seemed to me to be in tune with the largest proportion of elements in the work, but already it is 'directed' by Lee Blakeley, whatever that means, and it hasn't been improved in the process. There was, however, the additional factor of poor conducting by Philippe Jordan, whose approach to the score was so inconsistent that I hardly dared to be moved in case the next moment would bring upsetting turbulence. After a suitably grim and resolute three chords to introduce the Two Armed Men, for example, he allowed the fierce counterpoint to go limp; over and over again dramatic momentum was lost. However stately Colin Davis's tempi in January, they were invariably purposeful and confident. And McVicar's direction was incisive even if sometimes fanciful; now it seems just rambling.

The upshot is that the prominent feature of the first run, Simon Keenlyside's definitive Papageno, is now so immensely superior to anything else in the production that it has a strange effect on how one sees the whole piece. Papageno is usually passive, the average little guy keeping his head down. Keenlyside's Papageno is a campaigner for the rights of the common man, indignantly demanding of the pompous and patronising priests what the point is of the trials that they so relish inflicting on postulants. He is not only lovable, but a centre of decency and warmth in a bewildering theocracy.

It's not surprising that none of the other performers is in this league, since such interpretations as this are the stuff of operatic legend. Camilla Tilling as Pamina is also more positive than players of the role tend to be, and she sings with passion; maybe that's what Paul Groves is trying to do as Tamino too, but it doesn't come across as a coherent conception. The other solo singers are reasonable but routine, Alfred Reiter's Sarastro so lacking in authority that I wondered if it was a planned effect; the Three Boys breathy and weak.

By contrast, the RCM's account was lively, upbeat, with superb conducting by Michael Rosewell: I have never heard a finer account of the Overture, which can seem academic and, once the allegro gets under way, irrelevant. …

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