Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff ****

An ecstatic audience virtually held the performers hostage onstage on Wednesday night, demanding bow after bow following the most joyous and stimulating production of The Magic Flute I have ever witnessed and reviewed over a long lifetime.

Director Daisy Evans has blown away the museum dust and returned Mozart’s opera to its pantomimic roots, providing wholly new spoken dialogue (admittedly too much in Act II, and not always audible), laying on the visual spectacle, and updating the topicality. That resource might not have been to everybody’s taste, with its subtle inference of wokism, but we had here a cultivation of mindful self-awareness differing from the Enlightenment derived from Masonic values which were prevalent when Mozart created this miraculous score. Evans gives us a back-story to set the context for her reworking, and if you bring an open mind, or are seeing this opera for the first time, it certainly works.

Evans’ concept neatly sidesteps the nowadays offensive caricature which is the Moorish slave Monostatos, turning him instead into a pasty-faced pedagogue boring his students in his attempt to lecture universal knowledge into them.(Alun Rhys-Jenkins a vocally adept Oxbridge Don). Such racial niceties had no impact on the excellent casting, thank goodness.

No pantomime would be complete without the Broker’s Men, and here Evans gives us a duo (Thomas Kinch and Laurence Cole) hilarious in their monstrosity as they guard Prince Tamino and birdcatcher Papageno, imprisoned as they await their trials for admission into the Kingdom of Light. Then comes a magical moment when those two thugs take on Mozart’s original mantle of Two Armed Men as they sing a sturdy chorale-like melody over a striding fantasia bass line.

Here, as throughout, Paul Daniel’s WNO Orchestra plays with a sonority and deftness which Mozart would have loved. It was particularly poignant to relish the keyed glockenspiel contributions which the composer played himself early in the Flute’s original run, and later, on his deathbed, followed in his head.

Similarly the WNO Chorus displayed its customary strength and sensitivity in the few opportunities Mozart offers.

No spoiler alert here, but the denouement differs markedly from Mozart’s original, entailing the opening lines of the mighty concluding chorus being sung by  a variety of soloists.

In authentic Mozart, Julia Sitkovetsky was outstanding in the Queen of the Night’s two great coloratura vengeance arias, clarity and precision pure and crystalline. At the opposite end of the range, Jonathan Lemalu was fearless and secure in the cavernous bass depths, looking for all the world like Dr Johnson, embodiment of the Enlightenment.

Trystan Llyr Griffiths made a lyrical, appealing Tamino, Raven McMillon a refreshingly feisty Pamina, and Quirjin de Lang’s Papageno was charismatically delivered in both singing and speech.

But there were contributions even huger than these: the amazingly adroit lightsaber manipulations, shaping and reflecting every facet of the stage action (it’s all about light, after all), and the charming manipulation of bird-puppets, whether on the hand or on extended wands, acting like a commenting chorus, and accompanied all the while by the subtle chirping of birdsong.

Christopher Morley

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