Irish National Opera and the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on 21 May 2019

Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute returns to Dublin this week, staged by Irish National Opera, in a new production directed by Caroline Staunton. The story this opera tells brings together a large and disparate set of characters, most of them looking for enlightenment or happiness, or both. No one answer is complete, sometimes they contradict each other, like a jigsaw with rogue pieces, and differing points of view compete for attention.

In the end, it’s easy to sympathise with the ‘everyman’ of the story, the bird-man Papageno, who simply wishes for a little house, enough food and drink, and a friendly companion to share it with.

Mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, The Magic Flute has long been popular: bring the kids to see the zany story, but stick around for the haunted humanity. Mozart’s beguiling and ingenious music drives the story forward in sometimes surprising ways, and it is beautifully played tonight by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Whelan conducting players and singers alike with energy and warmth. The colours of this score are a constant delight, with the woodwind and brass tones adding a vibrant hue.

The curtain rises early in the overture to reveal Ciaran Bagnall’s set, a curved split-level frame that at this point boasts autumnal trees, branches decked with red leaves. The appearance is like a gorgeous book-illustration, a fairy-tale come to life, or Dantesque obscurity. Fighting his way through the gloom, Tamino (Nick Pritchard) appears to be engaged in an existential struggle, as the terrible snake that threatens to overwhelm him is nowhere to be seen.

In compensation, Staunton’s production, hinting at an imagined Ireland of the 1890s (100 years after the opera’s 1791 premiere), costumes Gavan Ring as Papageno in the straw covering of a Wren Boy, while the Queen of the Night (Audrey Luna) is given extra occult resonance with an antler crown on her head. Given the play of appearance and reality running through this work, the concept works well, adding a fresh layer of mystery and spectacle. Having a split level to the staging also makes good sense for the dramaturgy, which is so obsessed with observing and over-seeing, allowing figures from one setting to observe other parts of the story without cluttering the stage.

Pritchard’s vocal characterisation is excellent, clear and true, while Gavan Ring, in one of his last major appearances as a baritone, brings Papageno vividly to life in a wonderful combination of jovial humour and sensitive singing. Audrey Luna’s Queen brings a haunting physicality to this character, and her high notes are spectacular, though the journey to them, regrettably, is sometimes wayward. Her wildness, and the sense of loss and disenfranchisement is nevertheless a powerful effect of this production.

Completing the storybook feel is the damsel-in-distress Pamina of Anna Devin, beautifully dressed in Katie Davenport’s costumes. If Papageno is the ‘everyman’, then this Pamina is possibly the ‘everywoman’, their pairing thwarted by the rigid sense of social class that the story maintains. Their simple duet (‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ – ‘Men, who can feel love’) – a love-duet for two non-lovers, such irony – is a model of refined ensemble singing. Anna Devin’s performance, vocally and dramatically, is compelling throughout, and the richness and precision of her singing as the work progresses is very special indeed.

One of the problems of this opera for modern audiences (and producers) is its blatant misogyny, and it is to the production’s credit that it explores this aspect keenly. The racism surrounding the figure of Monostatos (given a riveting reading by Andrew Gavin) and his slaves is, however, white-washed out of existence. Having high-priest Sarastro (Lukas Jakobski) as a big-house owner, replete with red riding coat and boots, and an entourage of swaggering top-hatted gents, gives a strong political twist. His voice carries well, though interestingly without projecting the gravitas usually associated with this role.

Unlike the powerful reconciliation at the end of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, this opera’s ‘happy’ ending is one that has to be taken on trust, and it depends on us accepting one version of what is shown. Some productions breeze over this, filling the stage with light and expecting the music to do the rest. This is a dark and fascinating production, strongly designed, with some fine musical performances. It reminds us that this is actually an opera that resists a singular narrative, and allows a rare peek into an early modernism that, despite its many problems, is not so far removed from our own time.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)
Sung in German (libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera
Director: Caroline Staunton; Set/Lighting Designer: Ciaran Bagnall; Costume Designer: Katie Davenport; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast: Anna Devin (Pamina), Nick Pritchard (Tamino), Gavan Ring (Papageno), Audrey Luna (Queen of the Night), Lukas Jakobski (Sarastro), Rachel Croash (First Lady), Sarah Richmond (Second Lady), Raphaela Mangan (Third Lady); Andrew Gavin (Monostatos); Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Papagena); Padraic Rowan (Speaker); Nicholas O’Neill, Seán Hughes, Oran Murphy (Three Boys); INO Chorus
Irish Chamber Orchestra

Photography by Pat Redmond