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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Maddocks

The week in classical: The Magic Flute; Manon Lescaut review – the trials of love

flautist Claire Wickes at the far left of a steeply raked stage, Norman Reinhardt, upstage on the right as Tamino, and row of performers lined up between them half crouching. in the foreground, the ENO orchestra in the pit conducted by Erina Yashima, in The Magic Flute
‘True enchantment’: flautist Claire Wickes, far left, Norman Reinhardt, right, as Tamino, and company, conducted by Erina Yashima, in The Magic Flute at the London Coliseum. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

A precipitous stage that tips and tilts like a raft lost in a stormy sea; glugging, gurgling sound effects; chalk words animated on live video; paper birds given flight by scurrying figures in black; trials of fire and flood that appear to engulf the entire theatre. The orchestra sits raised above the pit, solo flautist stepping from her seat to provide true enchantment as the story demands. At times the audience too – terror upon terror – is on the verge of participation as characters tear through the auditorium. Mozart and his librettist, the actor-impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, would have loved the pantomimic theatricality, the anarchy and invention and illusion, of English National Opera’s The Magic Flute, back for a third revival since its 2013 premiere, conducted by Erina Yashima making an ear-catching house debut.

A collaboration with the theatre company Complicité, directed by its co-founder Simon McBurney, the action moves in space as if without walls (designs by Michael Levine). Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a telling reference point. Bringing this complex staging back to the Coliseum at a time of such crisis – ENO’s dismemberment is an ongoing saga of management and Arts Council England shame – came with risk. We can assume the budget was shoestring, rehearsals squeezed to a minimum.

This may have been evident at a few hazardous moments, but the cast overcame difficulties thanks to the expert work of revival director, Rachael Hewer. There were several standout performances: Sarah Tynan, a former ENO Harewood Artist, shone as Pamina; Rainelle Krause made a striking house debut as a furious, steely Queen of the Night. David Stout’s stolid, stepladder-carrying Papageno had charm and humour, and John Relyea, a smooth, telly evangelist-style Sarastro, was stylish, sonorous and creepily masterful. Orchestral verve and finesse were matched by top chorus work. This fast-selling run, which won applause and hearty laughter on first night, is a must-see. We may not get another chance – unless we travel to New York, where it’s now a fixture in the Metropolitan Opera repertoire, no expense spared.

English Touring Opera had secured a strong cast for a new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, which opened the company’s spring season at Hackney Empire (Stravinksy’s The Rake’s Progress follows this weekend). Jenny Stafford, bright-voiced and appealing as the fickle heroine, and Gareth Dafydd Morris, persuasive as her lover Des Grieux, led an efficient ensemble, with support from Aidan Edwards (Lescaut) and Edward Hawkins (Geronte) and a lean, characterful chorus. The orchestra was small, but compensated for underpowered climaxes with expressive string solos. Musically, the performance was on firm ground.

Alas the production, directed by Jude Christian, who has also rejigged the libretto, baffled from the start. Who were these people in jumbled, multicoloured velvets, decorated with orange net or yellow feathers or waving a pink toy poodle? Why was Manon wearing a blue wig like a cheap doll, and why was her rich suitor, Geronte, given a camp, rouge-cheeked makeover, or her lover dressed all in white? The director’s notes explained that the opera is conceived as a nightmare. Turning it, accordingly, into a surrealist horror removes point and purpose.

The action of the original, after Abbé Prévost’s novel, is set in 18th-century France and ends up in the Louisiana desert. ETO’s version takes place in a swimming pool, depicted by blue curtains and drinking fountains. Manon dies in an arid nowhere land made of gold curtains. Metaphor rules. All this, designed by Charlotte Henery with compact diligence so that the show can tour to 15 venues between now and the end of May, would be tolerable if the work’s emotion was not pounded out of existence. However you interpret Manon – as fickle gold-digger susceptible to baubles and beads, or as abused woman thwarted by misogyny – the urgency of her love for Des Grieux, expressed in soaring music, gives the work its backbone, and its tragedy. Here, the lovers were wooden, cold, intentionally disconnected. Go for the singing. Tell me I’ve got it all wrong.

A shake-up was announced last week for Radio 3, though when you scrutinise the new schedule (from April), it consists mostly of swapping things around, stretching, snipping, adding. A key move is the shunting of that informative Saturday morning mainstay Record Review to a lower-profile afternoon slot. Music Matters is to become less newsy and more feature-led. A jazz slot, ’Round Midnight, with Soweto Kinch, will bring welcome musical variety five nights a week. Tom Service’s new Saturday morning show is sure to have sharp edges, and Sara Mohr-Pietsch’s, on Sunday afternoons, also looks intriguing. Much of the rest feels like an embrace of Radio 2 and Classic FM.

However benign you feel towards individual presenters old or new – all down to the vagaries of taste – the issue for Radio 3 is not primarily voices but programme content and spirit of inquiry. This involves rigour and surprise. It gives the station distinction (and let’s ditch talk of elitism, high- or low-brow). Radio 3 is where so many of us, across generations, have had our interest in classical music piqued, our ears stretched and our minds expanded – and still do. This requires active listening. Otherwise we can get what we like on AI-generated playlists. I am holding my breath. Go Radio 3!

Star ratings (out of five)
The Magic Flute
Manon Lescaut

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