Sunday 17 August 2014

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (Aix-en-Provence 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2014

Pablo Heras-Casado, Simon McBurney, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Mari Eriksmoen, Kathryn Lewek, Josef Wagner, Regula Mühlemann, Christof Fischesser, Andreas Conrad, Ana-Maria Labin, Silvia de La Muela, Claudia Huckle, Maarten Koningsberger, Krzysztof Baczyk, Elmar Gilbertsson

ARTE Concert - Live Streaming, July 2014

Simon McBurney's idea of using a live video feed that shows hand-drawn backgrounds and the employment of live foley effects is, I presume, a way of making Mozart's Die Zauberflöte a little more spontaneous and interactive. It's a way of connecting to the same live impulse as the performance of the music itself, and since music is all-important in the conception and execution of this particular work, that's not a bad idea. In theory anyway. In practice, it doesn't really contribute a great deal during this performance of the production filmed at the 2014 Aix-en-Provence festival.

There's more to the direction of the production than this - and not all of which works terribly successfully either - but essentially, the visual impression of the stage design sets the primary tone of the work and it seems to run contrary to the intent. There's considerable effort put into making the work light, playful and noble, but the stage remains dark and in shadows throughout. The stage makes extensive and good use of a platform which is raised and tilted throughout the journey and the trials, the underside meaningfully and practically revealing a lighting rig. Clothes are everyday casual, Papageno looking like a mountain-hiker with no bird-like characteristics at all. The three ladies wear combat patterned canvas clothing. None of it however looks terribly 'magic kingdom'.

In fact, the overriding impression given is that there's an awful lot of effort put into achieving very little effective results at all. An artist draws background lines and scribbles with chalk on a blackboard (which eventually coalesce into words and phrases by the end of the journey into enlightenment), some shadow puppets are used, and numerous extras are required to wave around folded pages to represent birds. Some of the projections are "traditional", showing a swirling serpent, using a row of books to indicate the way into Sarastro's kingdom, but mostly it feels a very laboured way to achieve immediacy, simplicity and spontaneity. At its worst - in a scene like Papageno's playing around with bottles that fail to synchronise with the live sound-effects created in an on-stage booth - it actually works against the idea of spontaneity and simplicity and just kills the lightness and humour of the situation.

At least the intention is clear here, whereas the purpose of some of McBurney's other directorial choices are less evident. The Queen of the Night's account of Pamina's abduction works well and achieves an immediacy when you see it enacted in the shadows of the stage, but why is the Queen of the Night depicted as an old lady who hobbles onto the stage with a walking stick and is carted off in a wheelchair at the end of her energetic coloratura aria? Why are the three boys likewise skeletal old men? All of the characters undergo a transformation over the course of the work, but neither of these points really fit with the characterisation or the essential purpose of the work.

McBurney, in interviews and in the Aix Festival Programme, seems nonetheless to have a reasonable concept here that does come through at stages. The multimedia approach matches the multifaceted range of Mozart's work, and in regards to Die Zauberflöte it also manages to touch on the magic of simplicity, of understanding the world and achieving wisdom by seeing it through a child's eyes. The veneration of music, as a magical means of reaching that level of purity and as a resolution to all conflicts, is covered well in the ceremonial aspects of the staging and in the reverential handling of the flute. Music is at the centre of this Magic Flute and is instrumental in bringing about this new and better society, "through friendship and love".

If the staging is a bit laboured and ultimately indifferent in as far as the impact it has upon the work, the actual performance of Mozart's score by the Freiburger Barockorchester is just wonderful. Pablo Heras-Casado marshals the rhythms and pace of the work brilliantly and with delicacy, achieving that necessary playful lightness, spontaneity and the magical simplicity that the stage production aims for but never quite achieves. The singing too is just beautiful right across the range - on note, with a sense of really enjoying and feeling the work. Christof Fischesser is one of the best Sarastros around, and he's matched against a strong Königin der Nacht in Kathryn Lewek. Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Mari Eriksmoen sing purely as Tamino and Pamina as well as giving the roles some personality. There's no lack of that either from Josef Wagner's Papageno or Regula Mühlemann's Papagena.

In the end, Simon McBurney's production of the Magic Flute for Aix-en-Provence gets there and finds the beauty at the heart of the work, but if it succeeds and proves enjoyable, it's more to do with the expression of Mozart's incredible musical talent. Under Pablo Heras-Casado's musical direction, with the wondrous performance of the work by the Freiburger Barockorchester and with some very fine singing, this is one of the best accounts of this opera I've heard in a long time. And even if Simon McBurney's stage direction doesn't bring all that much to it, this is still a very impressive Die Zauberflöte.

Links: ARTE ConcertFestival d’Aix-en-Provence