The Magic Flute (English National Opera, Netherlands Opera) @ London Coliseum, 2013Opera, Ballet & Musicals

  • Catherine Alexander

Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a co-production by English National Opera and Netherlands Opera in collaboration with Complicite.

London Coliseum, 7th November – 7th December, 2013.

ENO Magic Flute 2013

Review by Catherine Alexander

A letter from Friedrich Wilhelm Burger to August Schlegel dated 31st October, 1791, a month after the first performance of The Magic Flute in Vienna on 30th September, contains the exciting news that ‘Gotter has made a marvellous free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest under the title Die Zauberinsel … Mozart is composing the piece.’[1] Five weeks later Mozart was dead and so the project was never completed yet the congruence of dates raises the tantalising possibility that he was already thinking about the play while finalising the Flute in September. There are clearly a number of obvious parallels: the magus figures of Prospero and Sarastro; the tasks or trials set the suitors Ferdinand and Tamino; and the masque qualities of both works, although the symmetries of Flute suggest that it is closer to Dryden’s 1674 adaptation The Tempest: or, The Enchanted Island than Shakespeare’s original.

Music – or sound – is, of course, essential to The Tempest and operatic versions of the play were the norm from the Restoration until mid nineteenth century. The 1674 edition of Dryden’s popular adaptation begins with a complex, twenty-one line stage direction that gives some indication of the dominance of music:

The Front of the Stage is open’d, and the Band of 24 Violins, with the Harpsicals and Theorbo’s which accompany the Voices, are plac’d between the Pit and the Stage. While the Overture is playing, the Curtain rises …[2]

Garrick’s version of 1756, his least successful Shakespeare adaptation, contained thirty two songs by John Smith, and others introduced music by Arne, Linley and Purcell. It is pleasing to conjecture that the young Mozart, who became proficient in English and enjoyed wordplay, might have seen a Tempest when he was in London in 1764 and 65. He arrived on the 23rd of April which, had Garrick’s original plans gone ahead, would have seen the bicentenary celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth – the festival that would eventually become the 1769 Jubilee – but Garrick was abroad and in ill health and while Mozart’s visits to the King’s Theatre to hear JC Bach are well documented there is no evidence that he saw any Shakespeare at all.

I’m aware of only one Tempest production that has employed the tenuous Mozart connection. In 1995 the Romanian opera and theatre director Silviu Purcarete (perhaps best known in Stratford for his 2007 production of Ionesco’s Macbett for the RSC) directed a version of the play for Nottingham Playhouse. He used a string quintet, two actors and three manikins for his Ariel, with the musicians in eighteenth century court dress and with Mozart as part of their repertoire. While it has not been uncommon for adaptation and productions of the play to reflect opera – if rarely by Mozart – the current production of The Magic Flute at the Coliseum is, I believe, unique in reflecting Shakespeare. It is a connection that Simon McBurney, the director of the show, explores in his programme notes and becomes explicit in performance when Monostatos attempts to rape Pamina and is reprimanded by his master Sarastro who, quoting Prospero to Caliban, then admits, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ The effect of this interpolation, early in the second of two acts, is to invite the audience to re-assess and re-interpret everything that has been seen and heard so far: the exaggeratedly stormy overture (conducted by Gergely Madaras); the thunder and lightning as Tamino, a prince like Ferdinand, struggles against the elements and the serpent; the rescue by and apparent powers of the three women dressed in combat gear (more like Tempest’s mariners than, as is eventually revealed, attendants of the Queen of the Night); Pamina as a blonde Miranda figure, dressed in white; and, not least, the source and nature of the magic. All these moments become inflected, retrospectively, by Shakespeare’s Tempest and the events then following the Caliban allusion acquire specific Shakespearian associations and Tamino/Ferdinand’s trials of silence, fire and water set by Sarastro/Prospero become less initiation rites and more the testing of a suitor.

Some of the Shakespeare connections are made less through the development of plot parallels than through directorial and design decisions about style and characterisation. The presentation of Papageno as an amiable, comic Northerner fond of a tipple and urinating in a bottle is much closer to the common stage persona of The Tempest’s singing Stephano, described as the ‘drunken Butler’ in the Folio’s cast list, rather than the endearingly cute birdcatcher of the Flute (directed by Nicholas Hytner) that was in ENO’s repertoire from 1988 to 2012. The skilful flying of Tamino and Pamina during the trials evokes Ariel and the mobile platform that occupies the stage and is raised or tilted to create differentiated playing spaces also provides a dangerously steep, confined area that is analogous to Prospero’s enchanted isle. Indeed, it is a set (designed by Michael Levine who has worked for the RSC and RNT as well as extensively in opera) that would work well for The Tempest. When the platform becomes Sarastro’s boardroom table, with office equipment, as the vote is taken to admit Tamino to the Temple, it is easy to imagine it as the table used by ‘several strange shapes, bringing in a banquet’ in 3.3.

The production draws attention to the magic properties of Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s bells not through special effects but by giving them an overtly visual quality that is rare in Flutes and which invests them, too, with the pictorial power of Prospero’s cloak and staff. The orchestra pit has been raised to almost stage level and the flute and bells are ostentatiously presented by the singer to the appropriate player so the action swings between the stage and the band. The device becomes a running gag culminating in the moment when the bell player has left the pit for a coffee and returns too late to play. Just as the barrier between singer and player has been broken so too has the division between performer and audience: Papageno, and later Papagena, move through the stalls struggling along the rows in a way that will be familiar to audiences at the Globe and the Swan (and pantomime, which these moments of clowning closely resemble) but is much less common in opera. This blending of playing spaces and of performers is typical of the ostentatious stagecraft of the production. Stage right and projecting into the auditorium is a small apparatus resembling a model theatre fronted by a video camera. An actor chalks on the blackboard backdrop with titles or an outline of mountain tops and the image is projected to become the backdrop on the main stage. Later the blackboard is replaced by handsized silhouettes or a row of book spines (echoes of Prospero again) that represent the front of and, as volumes are moved, the entrances to Sarastro’s Temple. Opposite the model theatre, stage left, and highly visible, a glass booth becomes a soundbox where another actor manipulates props whose sounds are magnified and become footsteps, thunder and clinking bottles. This commitment to metatheatre extends to the actors, seated initially behind the mini theatre and soundbox and later milling round the stage, who flap folded papers as Papageno’s birds.

Complicite has always been a most inventive company and its three founders have all now worked in opera. With its commitment to visual ingenuity, the use of technology and, in this case, Shakespeare, it has produced a Magic Flute that entertains, amuses, excites and offers a mixed media and generically slippery challenge. Not unlike The Tempest in fact.


[1] Cliff Eisen, New Mozart Documents: A supplement to O.E. Deutsch’s Documentary Biography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 19910, p.66. The Tempest project may have become Die Geisterinsel (‘The Haunted Island’) with a score by Johann Fleischmann, premiered in Weimar in 1798.

[2] The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island (London: Henry Herringman, 1674), p.1.

Author: Catherine Alexander

Until her retirement Catherine Alexander was a Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham) where she retains an Honorary position. For many years she directed the International Shakespeare Summer School for the University of Cambridge, was a Trustee of the English Association, and has lectured worldwide and for the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.