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Julietta and The Magic Flute

The English National Opera's autumn season opens with Julietta and the Magic Flute, both of which run until early October.

View of empty seats from the stage at the London Coliseum.
The London Coliseum. Photograph: Getty Images.

Something old and something new open the autumn season at English National Opera. Fairytales or cautionary tales, however you read them, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Martinu’s Julietta offer phantasmagorical visions that only opera would dare to dream. And with dreams this beautifully, disturbingly vivid, why would you ever want to wake up?

Twenty-three years old may be prime ingénue territory if you’re on the stage, but not if you’re a production. First seen in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s The Magic Flute has since returned for umpteen revivals, many billed as the “last chance…”. We’ve been promised that this is positively-and-definitely the final appearance for this classic of the ENO repertoire, but watching a young cast (and even younger conductor) bring energy and charm to Hytner’s visuals, it’s startling how fresh it all still seems.

True, this has never been the deepest or most philosophically engaged of treatments. Jeremy Sams’s quicksilver translation dances its way through the German original, rendering it in rhyming couplets whose inevitability is only matched by its knowing glee. Bob Crowley’s designs likewise made a gesture towards the opera’s Masonic subtext with its ruined temples and generic hieroglyphs, but never really weaves them into any kind of coherent statement. Perhaps the genius of Hytner’s conception is precisely his willingness to allow the jostling inconsistencies and conflicting elements of this singspiel to co-exist, never attempting to corral them into a single reading.

Directed by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas this revival lacks occasional dramatic focus, but is carried by a strong ensemble of singing actors. Luxury casting for the Three Ladies includes Pamela Helen Stephen and Elizabeth Llewellyn (sparring deliciously over their duties), and is matched by smaller cameos from up-and-coming Rhian Lois (an enthusiastically Welsh Papagena) and the trio of excellent boy-trebles.

Sadly in this second performance of the run, Shawn Mathey’s Tamino seemed a struggle, tiring audibly towards the end and lacking any of the natural physical ease of Duncan Rock’s Papageno. Delivered in a broad Australian accent his pleasure-loving bird-catcher snatches the show out from under Mathey, and makes one long to hear his Don Giovanni. An efficient and vocally exemplary Pamina from Elea Xanthoudakis only lacks a little tenderness to be sublime, but even she couldn’t match the starry debut of conductor Nicholas Collon.

Best known for his work with the Aurora Orchestra, Collon’s work here maintained his characteristic lightness of touch, bringing out the pulsing offbeats of the Overture and bringing the same clarity of drama and swift pacing to the subsequent action.

While The Magic Flute provided a slick send-off to one show, a new production was christened in Richard Jones’s Julietta. Who better to direct Bohuslav Martinu’s surrealist opera than the often surreal and wildly imaginative Jones? It’s a pairing that amplifies the symbols and allusions of Martinu’s sprawling allegory while cleverly pushing past its more tired structural elements.

At its premiere in 1938 the resonances of a town of people condemned to live in the moment, denied the humanising capacity for memory, would have cut keenly to Europe’s political situation. In 2012 this opera has to work rather harder for its impact, wriggling out from under the crushing weight of the bloated “it was all a dream” concept and an elusive score.

The French influence on Martinu glistens through in the filmy orchestral gestures and textural abstractions. Vocal lines are forgettable (deliberately, surely) and are carried along by the orchestra’s surging moods. Jones’s brilliant cast of black and white grotesques find themselves silhouetted against the rich, almost oriental, colours of wind and strings, with the denatured glitter of tuned percussion never far away.

This is a true ensemble show, built around Peter Hoare’s ardent bookseller Michel. Questing ever more desperately after his beloved Julietta, whose love song (heard once on a visit to her seaside town) echoes perpetually in his head, Michel’s adventures turn ever more Kafka-like as he encounters the people of this town-in-stasis, and eventually ends up facing a desperate dilemma in the Central Bureau of Dreams.

Hoare’s tenor deploys its full range of colours, trying to bring life back to Martinu’s more ephemeral melodic lines. His full-blooded frustrations and emotions fight valiantly against the lulling malaise of the dream-world, with its temptress, Julia Sporsen’s richly-sung Julietta. A sequence of fine cameos comes from Andrew Shore (Man in a Helmet/Seller of Memories/Convict) and Susan Bickley’s Fortune Teller crowns the moving forest episode.

A triumph of totality, this Julietta is ultimately about the absolute integration of its elements. Antony McDonald’s designs call on Martinu’s accordion – the only sound that can awaken memory – building houses among its folds before reimagining them into the filing cabinets of the Bureau, which in turn inform the symbolist simplicity of Jones’s characterisation. Ed Gardner extracts all possible life and consciousness from a score doomed to subside into sleep and nullity. All these elements collide in a final tableau that might just transform this operatic dream into real-life nightmares for its audience.