Few stage directors these days can resist the temptation to teach us all a lesson about the subjugation of women; and Netia Jones’s new Magic Flute at Garsington goes for it with a vengeance, seizing on the idea of the opera’s masonic community as a male preserve from which women are excluded.
Where Mozart regards this gender-selective club as wise and admirable, Jones presents it as hosting a bunch of sadly self-important 1960s bank clerks rolling up their trouser-legs for silly rituals, while their womenfolk attend to them like extras from The Handmaid’s Tale – tripping along in attitudes of meek servility until Pamina turns up, takes on the masonic trials, and overthrows the system. A Mozartian Germaine Greer rallying the sisterhood.
It’s not a bad idea, but it’s a heavy imposition on an opera that’s about far more than this. And it gets muddled up with Jones’s less productive thinking about conflicts between freemasonry and Catholicism (the Queen of the Night here is conspicuously devout).
But if the staging only gets two cheers, the singing gets ovations. It’s a fine cast led by Benjamin Hulett (Tamino), Jonathan McGovern (Papageno), and Louise Alder as a feisty Pamina. Conductor Christian Curnyn keeps things moving, sometimes at the expense of moments you’d want bathed in magic, but with a sense of purpose that’s welcome in the more portentous of the masonic numbers. All that ceremonial trouser-rolling can get seriously tedious.
I assume that people who want Wagner’s Bridal March at their weddings have never seen Lohengrin, the opera from which it comes, and don’t know that it’s the prelude to something that ends badly. The new Royal Opera Lohengrin is doom-laden from the start, when Elsa makes her entrance crawling like a wounded animal out of a trap door, even as the chorus calls her “radiant and pure”. It’s the kind of textual licence the director David Alden always takes, but it makes its point: expect the worst. And the worst is very effectively delivered in a show that looks good and sounds magnificent under conductor Andris Nelsons. He’s assisted by two fabulous female voices: the young Irish soprano Jennifer Davis en début as Elsa, and Christine Goerke who rises above the cartoon horror that Ortrud can become with a performance of substance.
As for Klaus Peter Vogt in the title role, his is a voice whose childlike, almost genderless etheriality isn’t everyone’s idea of a heroic tenor. But we live in times when heldentenors are a rarity, and Vogt is in demand for this sort of role. So I suppose the ROH is fortunate to have him. Even when his artless tone slips off the note.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection