‘The rays of the sun conquer the night’ sings Sarastro, at the end of Mozart and Schikaneder’s Die Zauberflöte. It was the Royal Opera’s first performance of January 2023 and there’s something profoundly consoling about seeing this of all operas at the midnight of the year. The lights dim; five chords ring out and that first triplet from the violins falls quietly into place as Mozart engages the gears and together we move off on our long, sweet journey towards light. In David McVicar’s staging, robed figures process down the auditorium bearing glowing orbs, while Tamino, in late 18th-century frock-coat and knee-boots, clambers out from the boxes and vanishes through a portal in the front-cloth. There is a world elsewhere.
And then we’re off. McVicar’s production – and with it John Macfarlane’s designs – has been around since 2003, and in a word, it’s sublime. That’s to say proper, Edmund Burke-ish, awe-and-mystery sublime: the Enlightenment maturing into the Romantic in a world of shadow, mist and vast ceremonial spaces. Star-filled heavens swirl in the background, the constellations marked out to imply the presence of a guiding intelligence. McVicar and Macfarlane draw on visual references ranging from Anselm Kiefer to Karl Friedrich Schinkel by way of Joseph Wright of Derby – not as some knowing in-joke, but to unlock a rich network of emotional and philosophical associations. It’s grand, it’s mysterious, and at times it’s intensely beautiful.
For a 19-year-old staging it scrubs up well (Angelo Smimmo is the revival director). Whether it delivers on the seasonal promise of escapist family fun (and the pantomime qualities of Die Zauberflöte might be the most sublime thing about it) is another question. Poor Papageno seems almost crushed by all this solemnity, though Leon Kosavic sings warmly.