Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte
Weiner Staatsoper, 2014
Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Benjamin Bruns, Markus Werba, Thomas Ebenstein, Franz-Josef Selig, Iride Martinez, Olga Bezsmertna, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Benedikt Kobel, Regine Hangler, Ulrike Helzel, Carole Wilson, Annika Gerhards, Marian Talaba, Janusz Monarcha
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 4 January 2015
There are many ways to play Die Zauberflöte and different types of emphasis you can place on each of the different aspects and rich themes of the work. It can be playful or esoteric, dark or light, grand, ritualistic and ceremonial, or an all-out comedy that delights in the absurd situations and characters. Ideally, of course, a production should incorporate all of the above, but it helps if it settles for a consistent tone or purpose. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production for the Vienna State Opera does fit in a bit of everything, even if it is a little messy about it, but it's overall purpose is more difficult to determine.
In my experience, you can almost always get an idea of the tone of a production of Die Zauberflöte by looking at how the Three Ladies are dressed. (It's true, you can try this at home by looking at the production photos of any Die Zauberflöte). In this case it's a bit mix and match, an assortment of formal dress, ballroom glitter, gypsy chic and pantomime dame, with no uniformity even between the ladies themselves. The same applies to non-period specific dress the rest of the cast wear, with Tamino in Turkish pants and a hooded sweatshirt, Pamina in a prom dress, and Papageno at least looking traditionally bird-creature like. It's not that I'm trying (or likely) to get a job as a fashion writer, but by the end there does seem to be some significance to the use of costumes to the overall purpose that Leiser and Caurier have adopted here for the work.
The directors' view of Die Zauberflöte seems to be based on the notion of its childlike view of the world. There are mysterious forces at work that as a child we aren't entirely able to make sense of. The behaviours and deeper motivations at work between mother and father (Königen der Nacht and Sarastro) aren't easy to determine, there are dangers all around, rites of passage that have to be navigated and arduous tasks and seem to serve no useful purpose. At the end of the trials in this production however, Tamino and Pamina haven gained wisdom and knowledge and emerge dressed in smart business suits ready for the adult world outside. Papageno, of course, by refusing to accept the demands of adulthood, doesn't change and retains his childhood innocence and ignorance.
That doesn't sound like it's entirely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder's original intentions for this magical adventure. If Mozart was certainly aiming to show that knowledge and enlightenment is better than ignorance and superstition, it wasn't with the intention of moulding people into conformity as corporate drones in suits. I don't know for certain, but that might not entirely be the end of the story in this production. Leiser and Caurier, in their all encompassing view of the work, do seem to give due consideration and acknowledgement to one of the most important elements of the work, one reflected in the title itself. Die Zauberflöte celebrates music in all its forms, from popular melodies to grand ceremonial and sacred pieces, and through music we can perhaps still get back in touch with the mystic, with the magical, with childhood.
Or perhaps I'm being over-generous. There is a lack of consistency to the production and an absence of the sense of otherworldly wonder that you would associate with much of Die Zauberflöte. On the other hand, the familiar set-pieces are at least often given a different spin, do relate to the content and the themes and even raise a wry smile now and again. The serpent first appears as a shadow before its decapitated remains fall onto the stage; the Queen of the Night makes a suitably impressive entrance, as well as a good exit in Act II with chairs flying in her wake; Monostatos and his "Polizei" sprout tutus when they encounter Papageno and his magic bells; and there's even a fun collection of wild animals dancing to Tamino's magic flute. You'll even find glowing pyramids in profusion in Sarastro's kingdom, so the production isn't devoid of traditional symbols and imagery.
The real quality of Die Zauberflöte, and where the work really comes to life, is in the colour that Mozart injects into the music, and in the colour of the characters themselves. This is where the absurd story gains true meaning and magic - which, as I say, I think the director's acknowledge - but it's not entirely borne out by the rather rote and colourless musical and singing performances here in Vienna. Conducted by Adam Fischer, the music is beautifully played, but it's a full orchestration and not period instruments. It comes across then as rather homogeneous, lacking character and conviction for the variety of tones in this opera, never exciting, never stirring, driven or even as playful as it might be. The pace is also rather leaden, draining the energy out of pieces like Pamina and Pagageno's duet and almost dragging 'In diesen heiligen Hallen' to a grinding halt.
The performers try hard to find a way to work between the music and the stage direction, but - with the exception of Thomas Ebenstein's energetic Monostatos - they don't manage to bring any additional edge or colour to the production. The singing can hardly be faulted, Benjamin Bruns a capable Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna a lyrical Pamina and Markus Werba a bright Papageno, but the performances come across as somewhat rote, over-familiar and unengaging, with little real personality injected into the them. On the musical theme of the work, Tamino says that every note he plays on his magical flute "stems from the heart". Music from the heart is what you get from Mozart too, and that's where the magic in Die Zauberflöte lies, but there was little sense of it here.
This performance of Die Zauberflöte was streamed for live broadcast via the Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home streaming service. The next broadcast is David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan, while Richard Strauss's SALOME can be seen on 23rd Jan.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video