Monday 14 April 2014

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Opéra Bastille - Paris 2014)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Opéra National de Paris, 2014

Philippe Jordan, Robert Carsen, Pavol Breslik, Julia Kleiter, Daniel Schmutzhard, Franz-Josef Selig, Sabine Devieilhe, Eleonore Marguerre, Louise Callinan, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Regula Mühlemann, François Piolino, Terje Stensvold, Eric Huchet, Wenwei Zhang

Opéra Bastille, Paris - 6 April 2014

The last production of Die Zauberflöte at the Paris Opéra was in 2005 and the themes of the opera were given a radical reworking by La Fura dels Baus. It wasn't a great success to my mind, taking far too many liberties with the meaning of the work in their concept, setting it as a war between opposing hemispheres of the brain. Consequently we had a giant inflatable brain divided in two on the stage, with singers bouncing around on it when they weren't suspended from cables. More controversially, the Catalan theatre company also removed all the recitative and spoken dialogue, replacing it with poems read by a male and a female actor seated on podiums at opposing sides of the auditorium. It got a mixed response and I don't recall it being revived at all after Gérard Mortier left the Paris Opéra.

Robert Carsen's new production - presented first at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival last year - is in many ways just as radical in how it portrays those opposing forces of light and dark, of male and female.  It might not entirely make any more sense of a work that already has its own inconsistencies and mysteries, but where Carsen's interpretation differs from that of La Fura dels Baus is that it at least settles on an aspect of the work that is entirely in line with the composer's worldview. Carsen's Die Zauberflöte is about the supremacy of love, of the inevitable triumph of light over dark, of the victory of enlightenment over obscurantism.

Focussing on this aspect, Carsen's production consequently avoids the ceremonial structure that more traditionally form the basis of presentations of the work - the masonic rituals, the mythic qualities of the battle between darkness and light. He also almost entirely glosses over the questions of misogyny in the work, contrasting what is actually said with a more enlightened view where male and female and the opposing forces of darkness and light actually work in harmony, in common accord, as two halves of a whole (with less of the bludgeoning imagery of La Fura dels Baus). Sarastro and the Queen of the Night actually walk hand-in-hand in this production, which is not something you would see anywhere else, or indeed think that it could really work.

Does such an approach indeed not go against the intentions of the work? Well, Die Zauberflöte is drawn from a number of sources, myths and legends, all of which undergo further upheaval at the hands of the librettist Emmanuel Schikenader in such a way that makes little rational sense or demonstrates any consistency. Mozart's hand and influence in the music is however on surer ground, more of a whole in its adherence to the composer's sense of order and benevolent, enlightened worldview. (The beauty of the music has a similar relationship with Da Ponte's libretto in Così Fan Tutte). The music of Die Zauberflöte is sweet and beautiful and Carsen's production responds very much to that.

That's not to say that Carsen ignores the darkness in the work. Far from it. The sense of death is greatly emphasised here in the imagery of open pits that suggest graves (even the orchestra pit is surrounded by a grass verge as if the orchestra too are in a mass grave), coffins are scattered around, and even Papagena first makes an appearance not as an old lady, but as a dead one, wearing the form of a skeleton and emerging out of a coffin. Carsen's way of integrating such imagery into the work, in the context of Mozart's music, is to see it as part of the cycle of life. This is borne out in the projections of woods that form the backdrop for the majority of the work, Johnny Maritneau's photographs depicting the same woodland scene in different seasons of the year.

The stage design is described in more detail in my review of the web streamed broadcast of the Baden-Baden production, but the full impact of the brilliance of the design, the levels that are revealed in the depths of the stage, are only really apparent when viewed live and as a whole. Carsen's production is far from how Die Zauberflöte usually looks, and it may lack the usual special effects and magic by settling for a more prosaic naturalistic approach, but it's no less impressive in its simplicity and beauty than, at the opposite extreme, the extravagant floating stage production at Bregenz in 2013. In fact, the full beauty and sweetness of Mozart's music (and nature) is only all the more apparent and Philippe Jordan delicately draws that beauty out of the Paris orchestra. This is music that could charm the birds out of the trees and in this production, it did.  

The singing was just as sweet. The only cast member here that was also in the Baden-Baden production was Pavol Breslik as Tamino. Hearing him sing live in the theatre, his lovely light tenor actually didn't appear to be strong enough for the role, not always rising above what is a relatively small orchestra. On the other hand, he stood in to sing the Shepherd and Young Seaman roles in Tristan und Isolde two nights later with tremendous force and precision, and I would never have considered him a Wagnerian singer. His voice is beautiful though and it has the perfect sweetness of timbre for this production. Daniel Schmutzhard was a solid Papageno, who never once struck a false note in either voice or performance. Franz-Josef Selig was a deeply impressive Sarastro, every word clear and resonant, with even those extremely low passages controlled and commanding.

It was the female roles who impressed the most however. Sabine Devieilhe's debut at the Opéra de Paris (having wowed Paris audiences with her Lakmé at the Opéra Comique) lived up to high expectations with a phenomenal Königen der Nacht. When Tamino ponders "Was that real or have I taken leave of my senses?" after her Act I aria, you really can sense how he might indeed be overawed. It was Julia Kleiter however who stole the show as Pamina, and it was most pleasing to see the audience respond so enthusiastically to her at the curtain call. Her voice was lush and fully rounded, perfectly controlled yet filled with emotion and feeling for Pamina's situation. This was a world class performance that perfectly complemented the sentiments drawn out by Jordan and Carsen's direction.

The Paris Opéra's new Die Zauberflöte doesn't perhaps explore the full richness of Mozart's masterpiece. It doesn't really play to the comic element, it doesn't have much time for its esoteric side, nor for the serious aspects of the work's majestic ritualistic side. This was a warm, uplifting Magic Flute that swept you along and it clearly held the audience enraptured with the beauty of its sentiments.