ENO Response 2023/24: The Magic Flute

21st March 2024 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

The much-loved and enchanting production of The Magic Flute returns to the London Coliseum for its third revival since its original premiere in the 2013/14 Season. Armed with only a magic flute, Prince Tamino is given a fantastical quest to rescue the Queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina from the High Priest Sarastro.

A collaboration with English National Opera and pioneering theatre company Complicité, this contemporary setting features live sound effects, drawing, animation, and the ENO Orchestra raised to stage level making this a joyously accessible operatic event and evoking a magical world of monsters and mystery.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder

Conductor, Erina Yashima
Director, Simon McBurney
Revival Director, Rachael Hewer

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

Chloe Sit
Exhilaratingly innovative – ENO’s The Magic Flute

In staging a revival of a classic opera, the age-old question is always: how does one pick up a production that’s been done a million times, with a million different variations? Simon McBurney’s revival of The Magic Flute has found an answer. A visual spectacle of technical feats, hilarious dialogue, and exceptional singing, McBurney’s rendition brings a modern flair that works perfectly with the essence of Mozart’s masterpiece.

From foley artist Ruth Sullivan’s live sound effects to Ben Thompson’s projected chalkboard interludes and backdrops, McBurney’s staging is what truly makes the production sparkle. Papageno’s birds are brought to life by fluttering paper, the orchestra is elevated as integrated performers of the show, and a rotating central platform works surprisingly well as a scene-prop. All elements of the theatre seamlessly integrated without compromising the singing, the incredible resourcefulness of the production team brings you as close to Mozart’s world of enchantment and illusion as you can get.

The humour doesn’t fall flat either, to the credit of both McBurney and Stephen Jeffreys’s translation. The libretto works so effortlessly with the music it could almost pass as the original. Papagano’s bits had the whole Coliseum in fits of laughter, as he raced through the stalls and scribbled down his number for audience members in his dramatic song yearning for a Papagena. Leaving the magical-instrument-playing to the orchestra members was a clever touch, which made for another round of laughs and placed them in the well-deserved spotlight for a change.

Erina Yashima conducts Mozart’s spirited score with elegance, matched by a cast that makes you forget how difficult Mozart’s music is to sing. Just as the production team uses almost every technical aspect of the theatre, the singers seem to hike up and sprint across every area of the room – with no disruption to their singing at all. Rainelle Krause stuns as The Queen of the Night, commanding both respect and sympathy in her iconic aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ even from a wheelchair. David Stout’s formidable vocal prowess and stage presence steal the show as Papageno, and John Relyea plays a masterful Sarastro with a bewitchingly deep bass. Norman Reinhardt and Sarah Tynan as Tamino and Pamina curiously end up as the more forgettable characters, with no signature moments or standout costumes to balance them with the rest of the cast.

The modern dress costuming does come off as jarring against the fantasy world of The Magic Flute – Drab grey suits, odd cameo pants and plain tracksuits for the main characters form the single Achilles’ heel of the production, particularly disappointing for wasting a fantastic opportunity to bring out the same elaborate gowns and whimsical fabrics we saw in Iolanthe.

The staging and singing are so phenomenal, however, that if they don’t compensate for this minor flaw, they will at least distract you from it. McBurney’s The Magic Flute stands as one of the most ingenious adaptations I’ve seen on stage, and is a must-see this winter season.


Hannah Bentley
The Magic Flute Review- an imaginative re-telling of Mozart’s classic opera

Simon McBurney’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, enjoying its third revival at English National Opera, uses every possible theatrical device to bring this musical pantomime’s fantastical themes to life.

As co-founder of Complicité theatre company, McBurney is renowned for his imaginative, stylistic movement and surrealist imagery. So, although conductor Erina Yashima grabs our attention in the overture, she has to fight to keep us concentrating against an onslaught of cinema-screen video projections.

To the left of the stage is Ben Thompson. He accompanies the overture with Wes Anderson-esque projections of chalkboard calligraphy (methodically drawn in time with the music) and hypnotic shadow puppetry, while to the right is foley artist Ruth Sullivan. She inhabits what at first appears to be a makeshift bar, stocked with an eclectic array of weird objects. But Sullivan’s sound ingenuity is soon revealed: a metal sheet produces thunder; rubber gloves emulate flapping wings; eight wine bottles become an improvised xylophone.

Mozart’s 1791 singspiel follows Prince Tamino and birdcatcher Papageno on their quest to rescue Princess Pamina from a temple of wisdom, meeting rigorous trials along the way, designed to bestow enlightenment on them – not always successfully.

Baritone David Stout’s portrayal of endearing Papageno, a man with an unhealthy obsession with birds and a desperate need for love, is captivating. His search for his Papagena (soprano Alexandra Oomens) takes him into the stalls under the leering lens of a roving camera. Warning: if you don’t like being filmed while getting hit on by a man with guano-streaked hair, avoid the front rows.

The vengeful Queen of the Night, who sends Tamino to rescue Pamina, is sung by American soprano Rainelle Krause with ferocity and poise. In her ENO debut she breezes through the infamous coloratura in the Act II aria “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”, demonstrating formidable vocal agility and power, in contrast to her daughter Pamina (Sarah Tynan) whose crystalline soprano voice matches Pamina’s gentle disposition.

Norman Reinhardt, also making his ENO debut, plays the strapping Prince Tamino. He got off to a shaky start on opening night but soon recovered in his aria “Such Loveliness Beyond Compare” when he discovers his love for Pamina.

After losing momentum at the beginning of the second act, revival director Rachael Hewer restores the energy with a major spectacle as Tamino and Pamina face two final ordeals: a fiery inferno and a vicious wall of water.

Ingeniously, the orchestra pit is raised to stage level, enveloping the players in the action, with flautist Claire Wickes and celeste player Murray Hipkin casting their particular magic on the music.

Not all the opera-goers were convinced by this contemporary re-telling. While discussing Tamino’s first costume – a garish tracksuit and trainers – one audience member disapprovingly exclaimed: “What would Mozart think!?” Well, after understanding the modern technology behind the moving images I think he would be impressed by the experimental magic on stage and proud that his 233-year-old opera is still igniting such creativity.


Pau Hernández Santamaria
Reason triumphs over Nature in Papageno’s show

The Magic Flute is considered by many to be the first “Romantic” opera, a piece well ahead of its time from a musical and philosophical point of view. It was responsible for leading a way in German opera which Weber continued and eventually ended in Wagner. At the same time, possesses a delightful wittiness and charm that must be present in every performance of this masterpiece. Finding the balance between these two elements is the biggest challenge that any company faces nowadays, and ENO’s production not only achieves it, but even goes too far with it.

Although the action starts with Tamino fainting after fighting a giant snake, we soon realise this is no ordinary Magic Flute. Mozart’s tale includes fairies, pyramids, priests and magic objects, but in this staging there’s no room for that. Instead, we’re presented with a rational world where everything happens for a reason: a giant structure that moves is responsible for the scene changes, a live sound-effects operator provides the background atmosphere, and the orchestra is clearly visible on stage. It almost feels like director Simon McBurney wants to take the magic out of The Magic Flute by overstating that what we’re seeing is not real.

Nevertheless, the strength of this production is turning a 18th century singspiel into an enormous show that merges different artistic techniques together, as it includes chalk drawing, multiple camera angles and moments that break the 4th wall apart from the usual acting and singing. It’s impressive how well it’s been put it together, although at times there is simply too much going on and the plot seems overexplained. As usual, the ENO orchestra conducted by Erina Yashima gives the extra boost of energy that the production demands, playing the fastest version of the overture I’ve ever heard and even taking part in the action. It’s impossible not to highlight the fabulous flutist Claire Wickers, to whom Tamino and Pamina have lots to be thankful for.

David Strout (Papageno) becomes the only character that reminds us of the original approach of the opera, and he excels both in his singing and acting. Despite going around with a ladder, don’t ask me why, his stage presence is agile and his comedic side is well exploited. You simply can’t stop laughing during his solo performance in the second act. Norman Reinhardt (Tamino) and Sarah Tyman (Pamina) show great vocal skill and chemistry on stage, but I’m not sure whether their role is as dramatic as they performed it. John Relyea (Sarastro) and Rainelle Krause (Queen of the Night) are spectacular and a joy to listen to; she offers a great rendition of the famous aria but the fact she was presented as an old lady on a wheelchair is hard to understand given the threatening power that this character must show.

Considering the hard challenge that reimagining Mozart means, ENO’s The Magic Flute is a good way of adapting an opera to the present times, even if its occasional slip-ups make us value even more the original source.


Oscar Cunnington
The Magic Flute; Mozart has never been more spellbinding

“This is going to change your life” whispered the stranger next to me as the lights dimmed. No pressure then. But he might have been onto something. I didn’t know people wafting sheets of paper to birdsong could make such a moving spectacle. I didn’t realise how many shades of dread one can produce by rubbing a piece of sheet metal. I never suspected that chalk can produce actual magic. Much like The Magic Flute’s protagonist Prince Tamino, I travelled from innocence to wisdom.

If that seems overblown, well thankfully so is Rachel Hewer’s revival of Simon McBurney’s 2013 ENO production. The show was a cacophony of creativity that splayed Mozart’s classic across multimedia frontiers and fired it straight into the audience, sometimes literally. The story follows Tamino’s and Pamina’s quest to be together in a world defined by a battle between Sarastro’s masonic-inspired society of enlightened men and the Queen of the Night’s chaotic coterie of fairies. The couple are helped along the way by jester Papageno and a magical flute.

The cast were superb to a piece. American tenor Norman Reinhardt’s Tamino dripped with yearning as he mooned for Sarah Tynan’s Pamina. Soprano Rainelle Krause stunned as the wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night, with her famous aria almost perfectly delivered, exquisitely counterbalanced by bass John Relyea as a stage-shaking, Bond-villain-like Sarastro. And often carrying long, hilarious sequences was David Stout’s Papageno, the classic Viennese jester figure brought up to date with actually funny set pieces using mobiles and extensive crowd interaction.

But this production’s triumph was less in the timeless story it tells and more in the way it told it. Flanking the stage were two artists. On the left, chalk-wielding Ben Thompson live-creating both background and foreground to proceedings and playfully annotating and adding narrative via mischievous illustration. On the right, gong-playing, bottle-tapping, boot-crunching Foley artist Ruth Sullivan, who constantly astounded with her innovative audio effects and soundscapes.

They were accompanied by an aching dance troupe, acting as the birds via their rustling papers. In and out of the orchestra pit, prancing across the stage, they created a visual spectacle that almost perfectly matched the ENO orchestra who outdid the exceptional standard they have set all season. Principal Flautist Claire Wickes was especially phenomenal, asked to join the performance on stage throughout to great effect and without any diminished returns on her playing.

All of this took place on a breath-taking set with Tamino’s trials the triumphant culmination of series of striking images, suspending him and Pamina in water in an unforgettable piece of stagecraft.

The innovation wasn’t just aesthetic. The production successfully and subtly downplayed the opera’s inherent misogyny by balancing the forces of Sarastro and the Queen to reimagine the central couple’s trials as a triumph of love rather than logic. It’s a lot to take in, but how would it change your life if it wasn’t?


Sophie Carlin
Thoughtful, funny, and truly creative: ENO’s The Magic Flute is well worth your time

This production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is, simply, spectacular, in the dictionary sense of the word: “a pageant or musical, produced on a large scale and with striking effects”. With a musical-like quality, combining sung and spoken sections, and truly innovative visuals, Simon McBurney’s revived production of this classic comic opera is a real extravaganza.

But not all is as it seems here, with the fairytale/panto-like first act giving away to the mythic, philosophical quest of the second. Who or what we think of as ‘good’ is similarly slippery, morphing and changing throughout. Set designer Michael Levine portrays this astutely, creating a fantastical world of shimmering projections, and multi-functional, changeable set pieces.

The excellent casting here gives the creative team a reliable foundation, a basso continuo, to really riff on. The ENO Chorus are powerful, as always, and the main cast immediately make the audience feel that, vocally, they have nothing to fear. David Stout (Papageno) is not only scene-stealingly funny but vocally agile, particularly in his trumpeting, precise string of ‘papapapa’ in his song with Papagena (Alexandra Oomens). And Rainelle Krause as Queen of the Night brings the house down with her sure-fire rendition of the famous aria, hitting the centre of every note. She’s assured in her upper register, which not all who’ve played the role before are.

This production espouses playwright Tony Kushner’s view of theatre: discussing the flying angels from one of his plays, he said “it’s OK if the wires show and maybe it’s good that they do”. This Magic Flute exposes and makes creative use of the necessary, practical machinations behind creating theatrical visuals. The sound effects and backdrop (a series of projected chalkboard drawings) are rendered by live onstage Foley and video artists respectively, Ruth Sullivan and Ben Thompson. Natural moments for audience applause supply rumbles of thunder. Pieces of sheet music held aloft become fluttering birds. We delight in this show’s creative processes, not just its outcomes.

And at a time of job insecurity for the ENO orchestra, we’re reminded of their importance by their generous willingness to really get involved here. The eponymous flautist is brought onstage (and applauded thunderously during the curtain call); the pit is raised; and the player of Papageno’s magical chimes has several of his own comedic moments.

The tone is thoughtful too, its comedy mixed with other emotional tenors. Sarah Tynan’s performance of Pamina’s seeming betrayal by Tamino (Norman Reinhardt) is genuinely heartbreaking. And Peter Hoare as servant Monostatos is truly ominous, lustily delighting at Pamina when she’s captured and bound, and when he happens across her sleeping, unawares, alone. His attempt to blackmail her at one point, with a “love me or die”, is a troublingly incel-like thought.

Fresh, funny, and full of more serious moments that make you question what truly constitutes the good and meaningful, this Magic Flute is well worth your time.


Rebecca J Hall
Utter wizardry

Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute deals with timeless themes of friendship, the search for a lover and overcoming trials to prove one’s worth.

Director Simon McBurney’s incredibly immersive production is due, in part, to Michael Levine’s spectacular set design. His suspended platform tilts to present the cast at various dynamic angles, giving each scene extra layers of meaning. Underneath the platform are warehouse lights and an earthy soil floor, breaking up the slickness of the stage with visceral texture, combining urban modernity with rural elements. During the production, from a booth onstage, live hand-lettering and moveable, creative backgrounds are projected by energetic video artist Ben Thompson, synchronised with the music.

Often surrounded by a flock of flittering, fluttering hand-held paper, representing birds, David Stout’s Papageno is the comedy counterfoil to the upright Prince Tamino (Norman Reinhardt). Stout’s strong duets with Pamina (Sarah Tynan) and his charismatic stage presence bring joy, especially when ludicrously bashing liqueur bottles with leeks.

Excellently costumed by designer Nicky Gillibrand as decaying skeletons, the three Spirits are played by Leo Ogungbemi, Olivia Purnell and Oliver Hull; youths who sang delightfully with voices unadulterated by vibrato as they guided our heroes away from harm. While John Relyea’s resonating bass voice brought a gravitas which befitted his role of Enlightenment and Freemason leader, Sarastro.

Rainelle Krause was exceptional as the Queen of Night. Before her first appearance on stage, the orchestra stood up to emphasise the fear of her. Often depicted as an authoritative leader, this production has her fragile and wheelchair bound, fully embodying superstition crumbling before science and enlightenment. Desperate to regain power, Krause sang the signature aria demanding her daughter Pamina to murder Sarastro with note-perfect precision and beauty. She received the loudest cheers and applause.

Conductor Erina Yashima balanced the sublime music so that all voices were heard with clarity. The orchestra was uniquely raised to stage level and thoroughly part of the cast, hilariously helping Tamino and Papageno play the instruments they were gifted from the Queen of Night. The Flute is magically suspended as it flies across the stage unheld by the Queen’s servants. When first played, its music animated Eadweard Muybridge’s wildlife photographs from 1887 to walk and fly across the stage. As he worked 100 years after Mozart lived, the implication is that his technological advancements in stop-motion film-making (and all creative endeavours which result in today’s entertainment industry) are a direct result of the Freemasons. Excellent propaganda.

Warning: Contains laugh-out-loud moments, projections of a huge writhing snake, a fiery furnace, clever suspension of our heroes as they swim (and sing) through water, unexpected ribbon flourishing and a choreographed, uniquely filmed ending combining hope for humankind with a sunrise. See this opera at all costs.


Jack Reilly
Despite occasional misjudgement, McBurney’s Magic Flute is a treat

It is a grave misfortune that I cannot give a truly accurate opinion on Simon McBurney’s production of The Magic Flute, recreated for its third revival at the ENO by revival director Rachael Hewer. For on the evening I attended, the large hydraulic platform which forms the set’s centrepiece had developed a fault which rendered it immobile throughout the evening. Nonetheless, cast, crew and orchestra delivered an utterly enchanting performance of Mozart’s final comic masterpiece under extenuating circumstances.

The Magic Flute is a wonderfully bizarre work. Schikaneder’s libretto is a whirlwind of moods, flitting from irreverent pantomime to sober Enlightenment values at a moment’s notice – it contains not one but two scenes of attempted suicide. Cheery stuff, but McBurney’s direction is nothing short of entertaining despite the odd tonal misfire (a masturbatory Monostatos is a step too far, in my book at least).

The production’s most idiosyncratic elements are its most charming. The stage is flanked by a visual artist, Ben Thompson, on one side and on the other by a Foley artist, Ruth Sullivan. Backdrops are drawn, manipulated and projected in real time (in time with the music more often than not!) along with sound effects sourced from such diverse objects as thunder sheets and wine bottles (most humorously in the Trial of Silence) in a way that is freshly organic. Characters roam freely through the stalls, and even the orchestra gets in on the stage action (most noticeably in the figure of principal flute Claire Wickes), having been raised unusually to audience-level. The whole is delightfully engrossing and feels interactive without demanding too much of the audience.

The large ensemble cast features many exemplary performances. David Stout is a standout as the bird catcher Papageno, successively carrying the opera’s comedic weight on his shoulders without any sign of buckling, while also delivering his arias with a deep and rich tone. Former Harewood Artist Sarah Tynan delivers a subtle vocal performance as Pamina, her Act II aria intense yet delicate. John Relyea possesses a powerful bass, able to project through the orchestra even in the most profound depths required from the role of Sarastro. Tenor Norman Reinhardt also wields a large voice, but in contrast to the sturdy, unwavering bass which fits the solemn music Mozart gives Sarastro, a large voice in the role of Prince Tamino disrupts the elegance of Mozart’s writing; Reinhardt seems to only belt his part. The Queen of the Night should be a show stopping role, and Rainelle Krause delivers on every count, singing her infamous aria with laser accuracy. Conductor Erina Yashima’s approach is a non-interventionist but energetic one, letting Mozart shine with buoyant ease.

Despite some tonal inconsistency (some of it Schikaneder’s, some of it McBurney’s), this Magic Flute is an enjoyable and, most vitally, accessible evening at the opera, whose open and amiable nature is best summarised in its final tableau: every character, even the vanquished villains, joins hands in honour of “love and wisdom.”