Groissböck, Günther


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.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Tomáš Hanus, Martin Kušej, Kristine Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Günther Grossböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß | Unitel Classica/C-Major

From the man who envisaged the Flying Dutchman as an asylum seeker in a 2010 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander for the Nederlandse Opera, cutting-edge opera director Martin Kušej reworks Dvořák’s dark fairy-tale Rusalka into a case of child abuse, where an innocent wood nymph and her sisters are victims of a Josef Fritzl-like Water Goblin. Evidently then, this production for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2010 is not one for the traditionalists. For anyone a bit more open minded to the greater potential of opera, this is an incredibly imaginative interpretation that gets right to the dark heart of the opera, and it’s sung magnificently by all the principal performers.

In the context in which it is presented, lines like “I’d like to leave her to escape from the depths/I want to become a human being/And live in the golden sunshine” take on an entirely new meaning when they are uttered by a young woman being held captive with her sisters in the basement and routinely abused by their father. Cut off from the outside world, it’s not surprising that they see their world differently, considering themselves wood nymphs and their father as a Water Goblin as a way to evade the reality of their situation. Could any sense of what these poor creatures endure be any more powerfully achieved than by such a production, where this abusive captor descends from the upper-level of the set down into the dark, dank cellar, where a group of young girls wait fearfully for his arrival, and have to deal with him forcing himself upon them?

Escaping from this dungeon, and faced with the reality of life outside the abusive circle that is the only kind of relationship she has even known, Rusalka is evidently profoundly traumatised and damaged by the experience, her “womanhood defiled”, and she remains mute and unable to communicate or function as any other human being. It destroys any chance of sustaining a normal relationship, and destroys her chance at happiness with the Prince who has discovered her in the woods. “I am cursed by you”, she accuses her abuser, and the words, the tone and the true depths of what this means takes on an incredibly sinister and infinitely more tragic edge when it is applied to real-life in this way and taken out of the realm of mere fairy-tale.

Rusalka

Is this a distortion of the original intentions of the opera, or does it get to the heart of what is already suggested in the fairy-tale story (and we all know the dark origins of such tales), and to the heart of what is there in the often sinister tone of Dvořák’s score itself? Even where there is a playful tone in the music and singing, this can also be played upon – and has been used often in opera in this way – for the additional emphasis that can be achieved when contrasting what is played and sung with what is actually shown. In most cases however, there is no need for such excuses, and it’s uncanny just how often the actual libretto and the music score chime in perfect accord with Kušej’s brilliant and powerful interpretation.

This radical staging allows for some incredibly powerful moments and shocking imagery. The scene where Rusalka totters like Bambi on her human legs, looking with wide-eyed innocence down the barrel of the Prince’s shotgun is absolutely breathtaking, Rusalka’s background of abuse only emphasising the distinction between their roles as hunter and prey, and the problems that this is going to create in any kind of relationship between them. This is echoed in another nightmare scene (really, this is not a production for lovers of Bambi) where bloody, skinned deer are ripped open and their entrails devoured by brides in wedding gowns.

It’s hard to argue that such interpretations have no place in opera when the power of the piece speaks for itself, when it shows an audience something of the world we live in today, tackling in a genuinely artistic and insightful way a subject that we would find hard to relate to or even come close to comprehending. One could question why not create a new opera to deal with such subjects rather than use Rusalka, but it’s hard to dispute that this production doesn’t give as much to Rusalka as it takes from it, using the power and an edge that is already there in the music, but taking it to a new level.

A lot of credit for this has to go to also to Tomáš Hanus, the Bayerische orchestra and the performers who all work together to help bring this off. Kristine Opolais, who has recently made a major impact in Covent Garden in a new production of Madama Butterfly, not only has the voice to carry this, but she has excellent acting ability also in a highly challenging role, and it makes all the difference here. Klaus Florian Vogt’s lyrical tenor should already be well-enough known and he not unexpectedly demonstrates a fine sensitivity as the Prince here, but the darker tones of Nadia Krasteva as the foreign princess and Günther Groissböck as the Water Goblin also make a lasting and unforgettable impression. This quality of interpretation ensures total fidelity to the intent of the opera as it was originally written.

There’s little to fault either with the presentation on Blu-ray. The image is clear and sharp with no significant issues, though some minor flutter can be detected in one scene. Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1.  The surround track is listed on the cover as DTS HD-MA 5.0, but this is incorrect, and there is definitely activity on the LFE channel (which isn’t even usually the case on most 5.1 mixes). The BD comes with a fine half-hour featurette on the production, featuring interviews with all the main contributors.