Wormsley Estate, Oxford, 14 June 2018
Does it take a female director to see through the pantomime of Die Zauberflote and find unexpected revelations? Certainly Netia Jones new production for Garsington Opera, while genuinely captivating, is also regularly challenging to our potential preconceptions.
There is no simplistic sense of good versus evil here. The Queen of the Night is neurotic but her neurosis stems from her grief and her strongly regimented Catholicity. At the same time Sarastro’s handling (literally!) of Pamina comes close to inappropriate and she clearly does not like it. The most challenging rethink is within the temple scenes. Hints of the Handmaiden’s Tale may be over-obvious but even this is not as simple as it at first appears. The women seem to have easy access to any part of the building, are clearly enjoying themselves and it is all too easy for Papagena to move about without challenge. Conversely, the young men are bored to the point of dropping off to sleep – or trying to cadge an extra glass of wine – when Sarastro extols the benefits of Freemasonry.
The ending is also unexpected. The trial scenes mirror Masonic rituals but allow Pamina to be inducted as a Mason, to the horror of the young men, though obviously it is part of Sarastro’s plan. That Tamino gives up his apron at the end – rather like Walther refusing the master’s guild – was entirely fitting. He and Pamina have moved beyond these games and look to a better, more inclusive, humanity.
All of this is encompassed by some of the best Mozart singing we have heard from Garsington. Banjamin Hulett is a fine Mozartian, lyrical and fluid, but he is also a strong actor who allows the prince to change from a member of the Bullingdon Club to a relaxed and emotionally more secure adult. In this he is fully enabled by Louise Alder as a Pamina straight out of Roedean, but one who sings with great sensitivity.
Jonathan McGovern’s Papageno is very much his own man. No fanciful figure, he is the uncared for gamekeeper, who just needs a woman’s touch to keep him straight – and not to say washed! The birds he collects for the Queen are strictly for eating, and during his opening aria he skins a rabbit. This is not a gimmick but totally in keeping with the character as presented.
Sen Guo has no problems with the coloratura for the Queen of the Night and is naturalistically aggressive but no more dangerous than James Creswell’s manipulative Sarastro. The final handshake between the two was uncomfortably reminiscent of Kim and Trump – may be it was intended to be so – and probably as unstable.
The three boys were magnificent, their quiet gliding among the bushes on roller-skates a brilliant idea. Equally the three ladies were individualised by their ticks rather than their costumes. Monostatos, as is usual these days, was sanitised, but Adrian Thompson managed to make him suitable revolting.
Christian Curnyn kept the tempi bright in the pit throughout and the balance, as we have come to expect in the Wormsley pavilion, was as good as ever.
If the rest of the season is this good we are in for a wonderful summer. And on this night it was not raining!!