To the English National Opera with the Artist on Saturday to see one of the last performances of Nicholas Hytner’s The Magic Flute. I have adored The Magic Flute for many years and you’ll recall we chose the Queen of the Night’s second aria for a memorial service not too many years ago at St. George’s Mayfair. This was Mozart’s last opera and I being a philistine believe his best and most complicated.
A couple of weeks ago the Artist and I were visiting Cheltenham for an excursion to Sudeley Castle to commemorate Henry VIIIs sixth and last queen’s funeral in the pretty church in the grounds. While we were perusing the pretty Regency streets in Cheltenham we chanced upon an open day at the Masonic Lodge. It was there that I finally confirmed the theory that The Magic Flute was essentially an allegorical depiction of Freemasonry.
Now I’ve never been invited into the Brotherhood and neither has any of my family. But I do walk past the Grand Master’s lodge in London’s Covent Garden at least once a week and have toured the usually secret building on one of London’s open house weekends. The Masons are a notoriously secretive brotherhood surrounded by sinister undertones, history and mystery.
All the layman knows is rolled up trouser legs, funny hand shakes and daggers pointed at exposed breasts in initiation ceremonies where the novice is blindfolded. Many members of the British royal family were Grand Masters not least King Edward VII, his son Prince Albert Victor and his grandson King George VI. I often see the Freemasons with their black suits and disproportionate black briefcases drinking in the watering holes around Covent Garden and Bloomsbury. They never look particularly threatening.
As it turns out from our visit to the Cheltenham lodge, the Freemasons sound like a fascinating if mysterious global organisation. When the Artist and I finally ascended the stairs to the inner temple, we met an enigmatic but interesting chap who explained the bare bones of the Freemasons’ beliefs. I swiftly identified the links to Ancient Egypt: the pyramids, the all-seeing eye, the sun’s power over the moon and the objective to polish one’s life to become more honest, discreet and true.
So I watched The Magic Flute with more informed eyes and saw it less as a pantomime and more as a thinly veiled rendering of Freemason beliefs. The plot centres on Prince Tamino’s trials to win acceptance into the Brotherhood and the hand of his love Princess Pamina. The villainess is Pamina’s mother the Queen of the Night. The pater familis is the powerful wizard Sarastro. Are you still with me?
Tamino is assisted by the bird man Papageno and a trio of angelic soprano boys. He is tempted by the Three Ladies and their mistress the Queen of the Night sung with impeccable precision and passion by Kathryn Lewek. She follows in the grand tradition of Maria Callas in being a great actress and a greater singer. The lady never missed a nuance or a note. I was utterly in awe of diva Lewek’s performance.
Outstanding for me was the performance of Elena Zanthoudakis as Pamina and of course Lewek’s Joan Crawford of a Queen of the Night. The orchestration quite simply brought a tear to the eye. Having seen Amadeus, I always thought Mozart a manic depressive mad genius. His belief in Freemasonry makes one think this might not be the case. Only a sane genius touched by the hand of God could write such sublime music.
The ENO has of late produced some rather ‘progressive’ interpretations of opera. I remember a Pearl Fishers that was quite simply ludicrous. The action was transposed to Goa with backpackers and radical fundamentalists and ended in flames…literally. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house. By showing The Magic Flute and the upcoming Jonathan Miller Art Deco white Mikado the ENO is doing what it should in a recession: showcasing crowd-pleasing and beautiful operas and operettas that lift us out of the gloom.
If you have the opportunity to see The Magic Flute before it comes off I would urge you to do so. Personally, I have nothing but good to think about the Freemasons if the values warbled from the ENO stage are theirs. I particularly liked the vow that Tamino and Papageno had to take to keep silent despite all temptation a great virtue and a lesson for us all. I am as guilty as the next man of resisting the urge to speak when I should hold my peace. I always thought we were called writers because we are always right. This I fear is not a true assumption.
Wouldn’t you just die without Downton Abbey and Strictly Come Dancing to see us through what will inevitably be a torturous winter? Downton is a joy forever and Strictly an opportunity to judge where one has no skill or knowledge whatsoever in doing so. Wasn’t it a joy to see the burley girl from Emmerdale rock out to her cha-cha-cha on Saturday? I scored her an eight before she’d even planted a high heeled trotter onto the dance floor.
So what’s new on the Rialto? I am filming a pilot for Back To Back on Tuesday at Henry Poole & Co about royal fashion and doing a pre-record at ITV at the V&A museum about their upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibition. There’s the book launch of my friend Judith’s tome about Schiaparelli for Vogue and parties at Getty Images and Natalie Galustian’s Rare Book shop. Never a dull moment…