26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 53


The Magic Flute (Scottish Opera, Edinburgh) Madam Butterfly (ENO)

Full marks, almost

Michael Tanner

Iam more steadfast than Tamino himself in searching for an, adequate Magic Flute, something which our present operatic cul- ture seems to shy away from. Any account of the work which fails to live up to Stravin- sky's clear-eyed description of it is an act of betrayal: 'it seems to me that the intention- al meaning of the opera, the triumph of Life over Death, is reversed at times in the depths of the music, in the great C minor fugato-chorale, which somehow succeeds in sounding Beethoven's Eroica note without Beethoven's display of superior will, the wings of the terrible angel are closer than they have ever been before in music' — or ever since, except in some of Schubert. Just as Mozart's most miraculous score effort- lessly plumbs the depths, so the production needs to maintain a light touch without turning into a pantomime. I haven't seen Martin Duncan's produc- tion, newly revived in Edinburgh by Scot- tish Opera, before, and in many respects I think it fills the bill, certainly leaving the ENO's and Opera North's productions trailing in the dusty rear. It has the funniest Papageno that I have seen and heard, in David Stephenson, and he is allowed plenty of time to show off. Yet there is never any • doubt that the movement of Tamino and Pamina towards enlightenment is the cen- tral topic of the work, even with a very dra- matically strong Queen of the Night, as Christine Buffle is. Perhaps her vocal inad- equacies, merely gesturing (literally) towards the top notes, and some very sketchy coloratura, undermine her authori- ty. She is pitted against a youthful but imposing Sarastro, Dean Robinson, who commands the stage both in his singing and his acting. His followers, though their dress is a bit incongruous, are not trendily muti- nous or jokey. The tone is high in their assembly, and whatever questions one may have to raise about someone who goes on about not being vengeful, while treating Monostatos brutally, are put firmly to one side, as I think they should be.

If the hero and heroine were more dra- matically cogent figures, I would almost rest content. For some reason however, the Tamino of Wynne Evans is made up to look like one of the minor smugglers from Carmen, and he is incapable of dignity with so traditional a tenorial figure. Smirking, it seemed, sometimes, though it was not obvi- ous at what, Evans sang decently but left a void in the action. Pamina was more poignantly acted by Nicola Howard, but got up to look as ridiculous as her beloved, and some of her singing was painfully sharp. The most wholly successful figures, apart from Papageno, are the Three Ladies, slightly tarty, but acidulous, efficient and alarming, and with exquisite voices. Anoth- er perversity was to have three young girls as the Three Boys, looking plausible but sounding cacophonous.

The general musical conduct is odd: Richard Fames seems at least interested in a Norringtonian approach, as the use of strings-drowning baroque timpani makes very clear (and loud) from the opening bar. Tempi are often irritatingly fleet, in that phrasing goes by the board, and some of Mozart's most beautiful things, utterly typi- cal of the works of his last year, can't be articulated. Then the music gets becalmed — though an andante would sound dirge- like in this company. The production deserves better than it sometimes gets, and so does the staging, which is ravishing and often very funny. Not a lot needs doing to turn this into a truly fine account of this necessary masterpiece.

The ENO's ninth revival of Graham Vick's production of Madam Butterfly shows that it deserves its longevity, and it is very strongly cast. It made for the most sat- isfactory, indeed richly moving evening that I have spent in the Coliseum for a long time. At its centre is a Butterfly who has all the resources for dealing with Act Two, though she is not able to suggest the 15- year-old of Act One. I wonder, too, whether it is political correctness which dictates that Cheryl Barker doesn't look vaguely Orien- tal. The discussion in the opera of little Sor- row's looks seems especially absurd when he is very obviously Oriental (in the contempo- rary sense) — and he was superbly acted, taking a large part in the proceedings. To conclude my gripes, surely it is a terrible idea to have him running up the huge flight of stairs and into his father's arms, the two of them beaming, at the end. That last orchestral passage, with the violent final dis- sonant-sounding chord, is the most justifi- ably brutal thing in Puccini, a savage blow to Pinkerton's useless late remorse.

Cheryl Barker is a great find. Without allowing her tone to harden, she dominates proceedings in Act Two with tremendous force, looking always more beautiful as things get worse. Her rages are frightening, her trust and confidence both shaming and touching. Performed as strongly as this, this opera makes its moral point with ungain- sayable vigour. It's plain from the start that Pinkerton is playing with more than he knows, and James Cornelison is suitably handsome, tall and not very bright. One likes him, which is important. Sharpless needs to be older and wiser; Suzuki is ideal. There were times when the conduc- tor, Alex Ingram, allowed things to go slack, especially in the tricky passage join- ing the two scenes of Act Two, a weak spot in any case. I wish that someone would have second thoughts about the edition used. The most noble music in the opera should all be sung by Butterfly, not shared with poor Kate Pinkerton. But it remains a triumph, to which I look forward to return- ing for further revivals, several of them with Cheryl Barker.