ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2011 | Roland Böer, William Kentridge, Günther Groissböck, Saimir Pirgu, Albina Shagimuratova, Genia Kühmeier, Ailish Tynan, Alex Esposito, Peter Bronder | Opus Arte

I think the mark of Mozart’s genius in the composition of his strange and still enigmatic final opera is pretty much agreed upon by most critics and its popularity as one of the most performed works in the repertory deservedly still endures, but in terms of presentation on the stage, Die Zauberflöte still represents a challenge that has perhaps been neglected in recent times by the major modern revisionist directors in favour of finding new ways to explore the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy of works – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. This is perhaps surprising, since The Magic Flute itself is such a rich and interesting work, historically and personally in terms of the nature of its composition towards the end of Mozart’s life, but it’s also notable for the tremendous musical variety and innovation with which Mozart approaches the Singspiel format, the music not only illustrating or illuminating Schikaneder’s playful and sometimes nonsensical libretto, but bringing structure and depth to the work, breathing life into it in a way that makes its mysteries endlessly fascinating. What more can any director possibly bring to the table or bring out of this work that could make it any more entertaining or even comprehensible?

The stage director for this production of Die Zauberflöte at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan may not have any new ideas about the opera’s central theme of light versus darkness being that of man seeking to rise above their baser natures and impulses, seeking enlightenment over obscurantism, or rationalism over superstition, but as an artist, illustrator and animator South African director William Kentridge does at least approach these themes with a very distinct style of his own. The period setting chosen appears to be late 19th century, the beginning of the age of technological advancement, the characters dressed to looking like figures from a Jules Verne or a H.G Wells novel. At the centre of these scientific advances in this production is the camera, a box that in itself represents the use of light – the ingenuity of man – to forge something out of the darkness, much as Mozart uses the music of the magic flute for the same purpose. Within the box of the stage, Kentridge uses shadows and light in a variety of ways that fits in well with this theme, as well as often being visually very striking.

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Thus, in the opening of Act 1, Tamino battles with a snake that is a projection, but rather than being the kind of CGI spectacle that one might expect with the use of modern technology from a production by someone like La Fura dels Baus (one of the conceptual director’s who actually have tackled Die Zauberflöte, but the less said about their unlikely concept of the Magic Flute being a battle between the opposing hemispheres of the brain the better), it’s more in keeping with the chosen time period and created by the three ladies of the Queen of the Night, who form it out of the shadowplay of their arms. So right from the outset, Tamino literally defeats a shadow of the forces of darkness. It might not be as spectacular as some wirework serpents, but it still works effectively and in keeping with a meaningful overall concept. Elsewhere, through black-and-white reversal charcoal designs, animation and even some silent movie footage Kentridge finds a variety of means to illustrate the journey and trials of the protagonists, their acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, as well as reflect the symbolism, numerology and the Masonic imagery that is associated with the themes of the opera.

At times, one might like to see more familiar traditional props and backdrops, but at least the flute and the bells are physical objects here, which is not always something you can count on. Sometimes, the drawings themselves evoke those traditional references, the classic domed canopy of stars that represents the domain of the Queen of Night given a spin here that fits with the artist’s own sense of concept and design. The ideas don’t particularly illuminate this strange, beguiling work in any new way, but neither does the director attempt to impose any ill-fitting concept onto it. It does at the very least have a distinct sense of personality, freshness and originality, which is more than you can say about the only other version of the opera currently on Blu-ray, the Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar. At times, the imagery here – enhanced it seems by a little post-production overlays for television – is simply spectacular.

In terms of performance however, that earlier mentioned production conducted by Colin Davis, may have the upper hand. The orchestration here sounds somewhat lifeless, and no-one on the stage – with the exception of Alex Exposito’s Papageno, looks like they are having much fun with what should be a delightfully invigorating work. I’m presuming that the arrangement used here by Ronald Böer is period – or more likely semi-period for La Scala – as it’s not orchestrated as lushly as you would normally hear it. That allows for some interesting touches in places that takes it back to its Singspiel origins and there is even continuo for some of the recitative (courtesy of René Jacobs), but it feels like there is a distinct lack of verve in the playing and the performances. In a good interview in the extra features, Böer recognises that Die Zauberflöte contains all the different facets of Mozart’s work, but the complex personality of Mozart himself is in there too, reflected in each of the characters, and that doesn’t always come across here.

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I can’t fault the singing of this production’s Tamino or Pamina. Tamino can be a difficult role to breathe any life into, but you don’t necessarily need to – the character’s (and Mozart’s) purity, youthful idealism and single-minded determination (yet one that is open to new ideas and a sense of betterment) is all there in the music and Saimir Pirgu sings it beautifully. So too does Genia Kühmeier’s Pamina represent the other side of that nature with a similar clear purity of voice – her ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ is one of the loveliest I’ve heard. Alex Exposito is the only figure who demonstrates any kind of life and personality, and he sings Papageno well with clear diction. Where Die Zauberflöte really needs character however, a sense of grandness and imperiousness to give depth and gravity to the work, is in the opposing forces of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, and unfortunately, neither Albina Shagimuratova nor Günther Groissböck are entirely up to the task. Groissböck, so powerful as the Water Goblin in the controversial Munich Rusalka, is particularly disappointing, not really having the authority in presence or indeed the depth to the voice required for a strong Sarastro. Shagimuratova hits all those notes ok, if a little breathlessly, but she doesn’t command that essential presence or menace either as Queen of the Night.

All in all however, if it’s a little dryly performed and lacking a little bit of spark, this is nonetheless a strong performance of Die Zauberflöte that manages to take a fresh approach to the score and the themes of the work. It’s certainly worthwhile for William Kentridge’s unique approach to production design that makes this never anything less than a rich and imaginative spectacle. The Blu-ray is of the usual high video and audio standards, with extra features consisting of a Cast Gallery and a very interesting twelve-minute Interview with the director and conductor. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, German language with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.