Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte
Dutch National Opera, 2012
Marc Albrecht, Simon McBurney, Maximilian Shmitt, Christina Landshamer, Thomas Oliemans, Nina Lejderman, Brindley Sherratt, Iride Martinez, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Maarten Koningsberger
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
You can't really argue with Simon McBurney's approach to Die Zauberflöte in this production at the Dutch National Opera. The director recognises that a child-like simplicity is needed to present the fresh look on the enlightened world that Mozart and Schikaneder's work looks towards, but at the same time there's a need to avoid the danger of the message getting lost or seen as utopian if the production is played too much like a fairytale or pantomime. The difficulty is in how to achieve this simplicity without losing the magic that is also a necessary part of the work.
To his credit, Simon McBurney attempts to address this by relying on Marc Albrecht to supply most of the magic sparkle, since the real magic of The Magic Flute is, as its title suggests, in the music itself. He's not wrong, either in the concept or in its application. There is certainly a belief, convincingly made in Mozart's score, that art/music can lead to the betterment of man and perhaps even change the world, and Albrecht's conducting of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra is just gorgeous, revealing all the beauty and the blended sensibilities of the music and the detail in the instrumentation.
As good as the musical performance is, it's perhaps not enough to make up for the lack of variety of tone on the stage. As well as striking the right balance that makes the aspiration of knowledge and wisdom triumphing over base sentiments and superstition seem magical as well as attainable, it also has to appear noble and dignified, fun and desirable, as well as meaningful and relevant to today. Simon McBurney's production does touch on all of those aspects, if not quite to the extent that you are familiar with, and not quite in the right tone that you would expect. There is darkness in Die Zauberflöte, of course, but here that tone of the trials that Tamino, Papageno and Pamina undergo at times feels more like Kafka's 'The Trial', with an added low industrial clank and drone underlying the spoken dialogue sections.
The production's intention to go back to a childhood simplicity is aimed for here by giving the impression of a more freer 'live' and improvisational feel to the setting, without relying too much on traditional technology in the stagecraft. In reality, it's a little bit over-worked to really achieve that aim. The birds that Papageno hunts, for example, are not just represented by bird sounds, but with a dozen extras running around the stage flickering pages from the score. Conceptually, it's nice and ties into the musical theme of Die Zauberflöte well, but it feels like a lot of work for little benefit or impact. The same can be said of the use of a visible foley artist in a box at the side of the stage to create live sound effects.
Other aspects of Michael Levine's stage designs are similarly low-fi in technology terms, the main stage device being a platform that is raised and lowered as required. Costumes too have a grungy feel and seem to have little consistency. The 'naked' underclothes of the Three Ladies reflect their lustful desires, and Königin der Nacht's loss of power and influence can be understood as the reason for her being ancient and mostly wheelchair-bound, but (having seen this production before) I still haven't figured out why the Three Boys are also depicted as aged crones. What does work more effectively are the projections, the hand-drawn chalk titles effects and the magnified sets that use a bookcase for the temple of wisdom. These manage to give a sense of the work being created here and now, as well as giving the work the larger dimension it requires.
It's this kind of 'live' spontaneity that marks the production out and undoubtedly keeps it fresh. The measure of this can be seen in how the production has evolved from its first productions here at the DNO to its appearance at Aix-en-Provence in 2014, with London performances in between. The production is clearly more open than some others to adjustments or refinements depending on the site-specific needs and can be tailored to the strengths and abilities of different singers in these roles. Having seen the later Aix production, I'm not sure than any of the adjustments made have necessarily been improvements. The DNO stage production worked much better for me, but that could also be down to the nature of filming the performance, and this production is undoubtedly difficult to capture.
Pablo Heras-Casado's period instrument version of this production at Aix is one of the best versions of Die Zauberflöte I've ever heard, but Marc Albrecht's conducting of the larger-sized Netherlands Chamber Orchestra also has a wonderful lightness of touch that works perfectly with the singers and supports the production through those areas where it lacks the necessary mood and tone. The work is not smothered with sugary smoothness either, but achieves the same kind of spontaneity that the production aims for, but with additional sensitivity for those moods, with vividness, energy and delicacy according to the scene, although the pacing is not always what you would like. McBurney meaningfully exploits the interaction between the pit and the stage, having musicians from the orchestra step up to play the flute and the keyboard glockenspiel, as well as actors occasionally stepping down into the pit.
The singing is first-rate and perfect for the production. Maximilian Shmitt is outstanding as Tamino and perfectly matched with Christina Landshamer's Pamina, even if she doesn't quite sail through some of the more challenging parts of the opera. Both however have a lyrical sweetness, clarity of enunciation and good projection, giving lively performances. There's no high-powered singing here - with the exception possibly of Iride Martinez's strong Königin der Nacht - but everyone fits in with the delicate tone of the musical performance. If all the magic isn't there in the production design, the musical and singing performances nonetheless make this wholly as great as only Die Zauberflöte can be.
I would think this production would have been a difficult one to capture on video, and the HD transfer of the largely dark stage consequently isn't as impressive as you usually find. Technically however, there are no problems and all the detail is there. The audio tracks are marvellous, the singing clear, but the music in particular has a warmth and detail that reveals the beauty of individual playing. The usual DNO backstage feature on the production is entertaining and informative. The Blu-ray is region-free, subtitles are in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean.