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Die Zauberflote review at Garsington Opera, Wormsley – ‘an enigmatic staging’

Scene from Garsington Opera's Die Zauberflote. Photo: Johan Persson
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Mozart’s Magic Flute is many things: a pantomime, a philosophical drama, a lowbrow comedy, a spiritual quest, a fairy-tale. Reconciling all of these into one single show is a difficult task, and one not convincingly met by director/designer Netia Jones at Garsington.

For Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder – who starred in the 1791 premiere as the bird-catcher Papageno, a comic personality role and the audience’s main point of contact with the piece – it was also a way of propounding elements of Freemasonry.

Jones, indeed, goes further than most directors in consciously reflecting Masonic ritual in the later scenes, before successful initiates Tamino and Pamina finally reject the whole rigmarole of the sect in which they have become involved, inspiring all the other members to junk it as well. Jones’ visuals reference various historical periods, leaving the cult’s exact nature and purpose distinctly unclear, though it is certainly intent upon keeping women in their place.

There’s perception and seriousness in her reading, but its focus gets lost in a welter of disparate and occasionally mystifying imagery; she also short-changes such vital elements as magic and humour, which need more of a look-in.

Musically the evening is a good deal stronger, with no weak performances, even if Jonathan McGovern’s Papageno makes less headway than usual in winning over the audience’s affections – unsurprisingly given the distinctly muted characterisation presented.

But Louise Alder’s flawlessly controlled Pamina, Sen Guo’s immaculately skilled Queen of the Night, Benjamin Hulett’s clean-edged Tamino and James Creswell’s richly flowing Sarastro all score highly in vocal terms.

Christian Curnyn conducts the Garsington Opera Orchestra in a robust account of the score, but despite their efforts and those of the energetic Garsington chorus this is an evening that seems to discourage the audience from engaging directly with the piece.

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Netia Jones’ often enigmatic staging is short on humour and magic