The Magic Flute review – ENO’s revival is a peach of wit, wisdom and laughs

<span>Inventive and ingenious… the Magic Flute at English National Opera, February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan</span>
Inventive and ingenious… the Magic Flute at English National Opera, February 2024.Photograph: Manuel Harlan

For all Mozart’s musical genius, The Magic Flute can be a long and not especially funny night at the opera. That certainly isn’t the case with Simon McBurney’s 2013 production at the beleaguered English National Opera. Staged in collaboration with Complicité, and scrupulously revived by director Rachael Hewer, there’s a lifetime of wit, wisdom and theatrical audacity distilled in this inventive peach of a show.

Ditching the masonic mumbo-jumbo and gussying up the dialogue, McBurney has you laughing out loud. A dozen actors, their movement beautifully choreographed, bustle around without ever pulling focus; singers inhabit the auditorium without it feeling gratuitous. There’s aerial wizardry, tiny shadow puppets, some inventive and immaculately coordinated live video (Ben Thompson) and equally ingenious deployment of an onstage foley artist (Ruth Sullivan).

Conductor Erina Yashima’s rough and ready whizz through the overture was followed by a brisk account of the score with occasional coordination issues. Otherwise, the ENO Orchestra, raised to stage level to accommodate clever interactions with the singers, was in fine fettle.

Sarah Tynan led an excellent cast as a believable, dramatically alert Pamina, her elegant soprano cutting through orchestral textures like a switchblade. Norman Reinhardt is a hard-working, personable Tamino, though his plus size voice made a meal of Mozart’s graceful lines. David Stout’s nice-but-dim Papageno is an engagingly bumbling bird-catcher, face and clothes streaked with guano. The role can fall flat, but the comic timing here is spot-on; a routine featuring tuned wine bottles and a full bladder brought the house down. As Sarastro, John Relyea’s obsidian bass conveys gravitas and authority.

McBurney’s Queen of the Night (Rainelle Krause) is a superannuated harridan, tottering about with a stick when not confined to a wheelchair. With her diamantine coloratura, Krause nails her Act II aria while trundling around the stage like a demented dalek. The three ladies (Carrie-Ann Williams, Amy Holyland and Stephanie Wake-Edwards) are tight, ferocious and funny, the three spirits – two boys and a girl – sing like a dream and Peter Hoare’s pervy Monostatos deserves every boo he got at the curtain call. Opera is seldom as funny.

• The Magic Flute is at The Coliseum, London, until 30 March.