There are plenty of aspects to the convoluted libretto of Mozart’s Magic Flute (by his friend Emanuel Schikaneder) that one might want to tweak for a present-day audience: condescension towards women, Moorish slaves, the rituals of Freemasonry. But it is still a fundamental story of good triumphing over evil, of Sarastro’s enlightenment overcoming the darkness of the Queen of the Night, bringing hero and heroine Tamino and Pamina into truth, which the music tells in its own wonderfully subtle way.
This is, however, not enough for the translator (rewriter would be a fairer term) and director of Welsh National Opera’s new staging, Daisy Evans, who wants to portray darkness and light on equal terms. Out go Iris and Osiris, in come “sun and sky”. Let’s hear it for the night: sunlight and moonshine are just as bright as each other, says the finale as Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are reconciled.
Some things work: moving a trio earlier in the second act gives Pamina more salience in the story, while turning the Moor Monostatos (Alun Rhys-Jenkins) into a sharp-suited medical lecturer is a genuinely funny innovation – because his lyrics are totally rewritten, they sort of work. But the texts where Mozart’s perfectly phrased melodies are fitted with colloquial English are really painful: for every line that sits well with the musical flow, there are dozens that are woefully mis-accented and misshapen. A radical rethink is needed here.
The unfocused drama is surrounded by birds with coloured lights that perch on shoulders or waft mindlessly in the air, balloons carried around by servants, which echo the primary colours in designer Loren Elstein’s spindly sets, with its moving staircases that never quite meet.
All this might be rescued were there enough moments of genuine hilarity to carry us through. But this is a remarkably unfunny Flute, headlined by Quirin De Lang’s resolutely humourless and probably depressive bird-catcher Papageno, who does not have much sense of rhythm, two brain-hurting loud-mouthed Armed Men (Thomas Kinch and Laurence Cole), and three overdone if brightly sung ladies (Nazan Fikert, Kezia Bienek, and Claire Barnett-Jones).
At the centre of the drama, Jonathan Lemalu is no longer a full-voiced Sarastro, though his speaking voice is resonant, while Julia Sitkovetsky is perfectly accurate in the high-flying reaches of the Queen of the Night’s arias, but unexciting. Trystan Llŷr Griffiths’s Tamino is ardent, and Raven McMillon’s small-toned Pamina blossoms in the second act, with three ‘young ones’ (we are not allowed to call them “boys”) and Jenny Stafford’s neighbourly Papagena. None seems encouraged to blossom.
The one redeeming feature is the stylish playing of the WNO Orchestra, marking a welcome return to opera here of former Opera North and ENO music director Paul Daniel, pacing the eternally fresh music with patience and purpose.
In Cardiff until March 17, then touring until May 27; wno.org.uk