Zauberflöte, Die


ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2013 | Simon Rattle, Robert Carsen, Pavol Breslik, Ana Durlovski, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, Chen Reiss, Annick Massis, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann, José van Dam, James Elliott | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 1st April 2013

There’s not much magic in Robert Carsen’s new production of The Magic Flute for the 2013 Easter Festival at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. There’s a flute at least, and you can’t always take that for granted - but Carsen very purposely brings this production very much down to earth. There are no big entrances and no grand effects, the settings are all related to nature and death. A rather grave Die Zauberflöte, you could say, which doesn’t provide much in the way of spectacle. Mozart’s music however can sustain that, but that might be more to do with the fine account of the score given by Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Simon Rattle and some strong singing performances than with anything that Robert Carsen brings to the production.

Carsen at least applies a viable and consistent concept to the work, cutting through all the Masonic rituals and ceremonies to the heart of the conflict that lies between the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. It does a little more than that and actually attempts to update some of the work’s less-enlightened views on women to give a more equality-minded view of the differences between the two sexes in regard to the rational and the emotional capacity of all human beings. One is not necessarily superior to the other here. Despite some of the inconsistencies with this position within the work itself - which only enhances its ambiguity and richness - it’s the joining of those two forces through the union of Tamino and Pamina to create a better world that undoubtedly forms the heart and the meaning of the work.

Carsen merely emphasises this union by showing it not so much in contrast to the entrenched positions of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, as much it being the beginning of a new age that has the blessing of these once mortal enemies. In Carsen’s staging, both Sarastro and Königen present a united force, putting aside differences for the sake of a better future, coming together even in scenes where they don’t usually appear together to offer silent support to the other side, even if their stated position indicates the opposite. You’ll find women (and even Königen’s Three Ladies) then alongside the men in Sarastro’s temple and - just to get the point across - even the Three Boys are transformed into Three Girls wearing dresses to call Pamina back from her despair and attempted suicide.

This all requires a bit of an adjustment from viewer used to the traditional certainties within Die Zauberflöte, of which there are few enough as it is. In place of the old-fashioned obscure Masonic imagery and rituals - and indeed the traditional spectacular set-pieces - Carsen’s staging takes the opera back to a more natural setting, with the emphasis on Life and Death. There are no big spectacular effects scenes here, the location consisting for the most part of a cemetery of open graves set against the backdrop of a projection of woods. The opening scene then merely sees Tamino scramble out of a grave to be rescued from what isn’t anything more than a big snake by the Three Ladies in dressed in mourning attire. Papagena makes her first appearance during Papageno’s trial of silence not as an old hag, but as a skull-faced corpse climbing out of a coffin. Even the orchestra, surrounded by a platform, seem to be contained within one big pit.

There’s a constant and deliberate attempt to cut back on the flash and wonder. There’s no grand entrance even for Königen der Nacht, who simply walks onto the stage with a minimum of ceremony. If she still presents a formidable figure, that’s conveyed in the singing delivery of that famous opening aria, and that alone is more than enough. In keeping with the sober funereal imagery, Monostatos is a gravedigger here, the Three Boys are just three boys (when they aren’t Three Boys dressed as girls) with no magic flying balloons to transport them. The Speaker and Sarastro are also dressed in formal mourning coats, wearing blindfolds. In the one place where you would at least expect to see magic effects, the playing of the magic flute, we merely see shadows of birds flitting around in the trees in the background.

Carsen’s staging then does take away a lot of the wonder and the humour that contributes to the richness of Die Zauberflöte without really bringing anything new out of it. What holds the viewer however, and what the staging only emphasises, is the richness of the music itself and the quality of the performances. Die Zauberflöte wouldn’t be part of the normal repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic, but perhaps because of that they seem to relish in the beauty of the work’s symphonic qualities. You’d hardly think Die Zauberflöte was just a Singspiel, but of course the work is much more than that and Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker give a warm account of the work that contrasts with Carsen’s direction but at the same time enhances it. It may give every visual appearance of being a dark, morbid version of the opera, but there’s more warmth and forgiveness here that you usually find in what can sometimes be a cold and rigidly performed work. It’s hugs all around at the end here with even Monostatos being welcomed back into the big love-in finale.

The casting and the singing also make this an absolutely gorgeous Die Zauberflöte to listen to. With his pure lyrical tenor and fresh, sincere delivery, Pavol Breslik is a natural for Tamino. Alongside Kate Royal’s Pamina, a more idealistically perfect couple would be hard to find. Both look good, can act well and have simply beautiful singing voices. Royal’s ‘Ach ich Fühls‘ in particular is just exquisitely heartbreaking. And there are no disappointments elsewhere in the cast. Ana Durlovski stepped in at short notice to replace an unwell Simone Kermes as Königen der Nacht and did so very impressively. Dimitry Ivashchenko’s Sarastro sounded fine, but had a tendency to work to his own timing rather than follow the conductor. The toning down of the comedy and strong principals meant that there was not danger of Michael Nagy’s Papageno stealing the show here, but rather it was a fine performance that was still funny but fitted in well with the overall production.

This production of Die Zauberflöte at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was recorded on the 1st April 2013 and broadcast via internet streaming throught the ARTE Live Web site, where it is currently still available for viewing until July. Subtitles on the broadcast are in German only.

Magic FluteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute

Scottish Opera, 2012 | Ekhart Wycik, Sir Thomas Allen, Nicky Spence, Claire Watkins, Rachel Hynes, Louise Collett, Richard Burkhard, Mari Moriya, Laura Mitchell, Jonathan Best, Peter Van Hulle | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 1 December 2012

If you want to, you can consider The Magic Flute to be a complex work, and with all the qualities that make up the complex personality and musicianship of Mozart placed within it, it most certainly is a work of incredible richness and variety. Written however with Emanuel Schikaneder as a popular Singspiel, what Die Zauberflöte should be above all else however is witty, charming, funny and entertaining. It has a serious side of course, and a meaningful message to put across - and it does get a little bogged down in solemnity on occasion - but it’s the means by which those ideas are put across that is essential to the brilliance of the work. Comedy, in The Magic Flute, proves to be a much more effective means of getting that across. And music - but I’ll come to that as well.

The light-hearted side of Mozart in Die Zauberflöte can often be undervalued and underrepresented, but the Scottish Opera’s production - seen here in Belfast at the end of the tour on 1st December - gets the balance just about right. That’s a tricky balance to maintain in this work. How, for example, do you account for all the mysticism, the Masonic initiation rituals and grand solemn ceremonies that undoubtedly underpin most of the enlightened ideals that make up the fabric of The Magic Flute, while at the same time making it accessible and entertaining to a modern audience? How do you reconcile the Tamino and the Papageno? Mozart does the hard bit through his remarkable music, showing love to be the most ennobling and life-affirming act that any human being is capable of, but finding a way to make that work in a setting that accounts for all the trappings of the Masonic rituals is a more difficult prospect for a modern production.

Directing for the Scottish Opera, Sir Thomas Allen’s idea isn’t a bad one, setting the story up as a kind of fairground show in a Victorian “Steampunk” setting with gentlemen in stovepipe hats, operating pulleys and clockwork mechanical constructions. Visually it’s a delight, creating the right kind of ‘magical’ background that accounts for freaks and animals, smoke and mirrors, but the steam engineering also feels utterly appropriate to the idea of human ingenuity, progress and man’s ceaseless endeavours to better himself. It doesn’t go all the way to differentiate and clarify the natures of the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, or establish where dragon slaying fits into the picture, but it’s more important to provide a suitably “fun” setting that better engages the audience and allows the story to flow in a relatively consistent manner.

And who better to engage with the audience than Papageno? Well, the Scottish Opera played an interesting trick in making Tamino a regular member of the audience also, picked out sitting in the Circle by a spotlight during the overture and invited to join in the fun on the stage. Tamino can be a little too earnest a figure to entirely identify with, so some pantomime-style banter with the audience on the part of both Tamino and Papageno - and engaging performances from Nicky Spence and Richard Burkhard - helped break down those barriers between the characters and the audience, which is really what The Magic Flute is all about. It’s about showing what noble sentiments and actions any man is capable of, whether Prince or fool. Or indeed woman.

Much scorn is poured upon womankind in The Magic Flute, no doubt in line with Masonic tradition - but Mozart’s truly enlightened attitude (and I’m sure his love for women) shows that they also have an important part in directing the progress of all mankind on to better things. If there’s any doubt about the work’s intentions towards women, one need only listen to the remarkable music that Mozart scores for the female figures. The masculine characteristics are straight, direct and measured in both their nobility and, in the case of Papageno, playfulness, but the women bring a wildness, an unpredictability and a sense of abandon - most notably in the case of the Queen of the Night’s coloratura and range, but also in the sentiments that plunge Pamina from the heights of love to the depths of despair within the span of minutes, a descent that was handled well in this performance by Laura Mitchell.

All of this is part of what The Magic Flute is about, so in addition to making it look engaging and entertaining, it needs to musically take you on this journey, and on all accounts the Scottish Opera’s production was sympathetic to the rhythms and moods of the piece. There were a few curious lapses in tempo that, for example, drained the intensity both from the Queen of the Night’s entrance and from Sarastro’s grave pronouncements. If they were to give the performer’s room to approach the demands of their ranges, it may have been necessary, but Mari Moriya and Jonathan Best didn’t seem to have too many problems in these tricky roles. All of the main performers then managed to strike that balance exceptionally well, matching the tone and sentiments of Mozart’s writing, and they were well supported by the rest of the cast, with a strong trio in the three Ladies, but also the exceptionally beautiful harmonies produced by the three Boys for this performance.

If there were any minor concerns about the limitations of the fairground setting or in the singers meeting the exceptionally high standards of the work’s vocal demands, it’s more the spirit and the heart of Mozart’s music that is essential to getting the wonder of The Magic Flute across, and the Scottish Opera’s heart was in the right place here.

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.

Zauberflote

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.

Zauberflote

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.