Maxim Emelyanychev – conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the first time and making his debut with the Royal Opera House orchestra – writes in a programme note that he wants to feed off the energy of the audience. But on the first night of this revival of David McVicar’s production, now in its 20th year, I wanted more of that mercurial spark of inspiration.
Not that there isn’t much to admire in the individual performances: Gyula Orendt’s Papageno is the heart of this production, turning his journey towards earthly fulfilment with Sarah Dufresne’s Papagena into the most convincing development of character and comedy in the show; Anna Prohaska’s Pamina is full of adult anguish and subtlety, especially in her act two lament, while Aigul Khismatullina’s Queen of the Night is preternaturally precise in her glass-shattering rage, and Filipe Manu’s Tamino is a solidly stentorian model of well-sung princeliness.
It’s just that none of them seem to be having much fun in Angelo Smimmo’s redirection of this show, which makes The Magic Flute an earnest post-Enlightenment essay. John Macfarlane’s imposingly tenebrous sets, lit with irresistible chiaroscuro by Paule Constable, create a world of visual and atmospheric coherence for these characters that the singers can’t sustain. The clunking dichotomies of the piece – between moon and sun, man and woman, ideology and instinct – let alone the ludicrousness of its plot, are only made more obvious and more problematic.
But there’s a spirit of sheer entertainment trying to break out in this show. The cast and musicians just need the excuse to release the Magic Flute into the weird masonic pantomime it really is, whose meaning lies in its messy inconsistencies, not its sunlit coherence. For the rest of the run, get down to Covent Garden and be the audience that helps Emelyanychev get Mozart’s party started.
• At Royal Opera House, London, until 28 January.