Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Bregenz Festival 2013

Partick Summers, David Pountney, Ana Durlovski, Gisela Stille, Daniel Schmutzhard, Alfred Reiter, Rainer Trost, Dénise Beck

ARTE Live Web, Internet Steaming, 25 July 2013

If it were anywhere else and any other work, you might think that the production here was just a little bit over the top, but this is the floating lake stage in Bregenz and it's Mozart's The Magic Flute, so really, anything goes. Bregenz productions are always truly spectacular and one would think that the previous installation of a giant 'Death of Marat' in Lake Constance for Andrea Chénier would be a hard act to follow, but this year's The Magic Flute tops it. Mozart's playful and magical work clearly inspires the imagination of director David Pountney and his production team - as it should - and, even with considerable competition, this is by far the most impressive production I think I've ever seen of Die Zauberflöte.

Set right in the waters of Lake Constance at Bregenz, the opera is performed on the domed back of a giant turtle that is surrounded by three huge dragons, but the stage itself is evidently only half the spectacle. As a piece of stagecraft, Johan Engels' design is also a state of the art production, vividly imagined and impressively choreographed. The overture, for example, shows the capture of Pamina, the Queen of the Night looking on horrified as Sarastro, Monostatos and his slaves transport her away on a boat that takes a circuit of the stage. The stage then erupts into life in the battle that ensues, fireworks flying, a serpent winding down the stage to inflate to enormous proportions as the dragon that attacks Prince Tamino. The green, stepped stage revolves, one half sprouting giant inflatable blades of grass or spikes that create a forest and change colour depending on the scene, the other half used mainly to create a podium or dais for the grandstanding of The Queen of the Night and for Sarastro.

Another significant feature of the Bregenz production is Marie-Jeanne Lecca's larger-than-life puppets for the three ladies (each operated by three puppeteers, reflecting the significance of this number in the work) and for the three boys, while the actual roles are sung off-stage (and by female singers moreover). There are probably logistical reasons for this, although the stage is accommodating enough for all sorts of activity and numbers of extras and acrobats. If it allows the singers to concentrate on the singing however, well then that's also a benefit, but primarily it's clearly for the sake of magic, spectacle and sheer scale. The dancing animals, for example, charmed by Tamino's flute, are recreated here through giant glowing eyes in the forest and it works wonderfully. Everything comes together exceptionally well in this way, the principal singers interacting with all the marvellous creations, the whole thing meticulously timed and choreographed.

As has always been the case with any production I've seen at Bregenz, just because there is huge importance placed on spectacle and entertainment doesn't mean that the musical performance or the singing is in any way neglected or relegated to secondary importance. Conducted by Patrick Summers, the small ensemble of the Vienna Symphonic orchestra give a lovely, sensitive reading of Die Zauberflöte, capturing the translucent beauty of the score and the brightness of its melodies with a lively performance. The use of electronic sound effects on occasion is to be deplored of course, but if it's taken as part of the theatrical effects and it adds some atmosphere to the dry dialogue, well, it doesn't really matter that much, all things considered.

There are times also when you think that a high level of fitness, intrepidness, acrobatic agility and a head for heights are more important considerations than singing ability when it comes to casting for Bregenz. For this production, where several performers have reportedly ended up in the lake on one or two occasions, you might even add swimming as an important requirement this time, but while the cast may indeed possess these additional qualities, the singing is marvellous too. For this particular work - a Singspiel - vocal agility is perhaps not quite as important as the possession of a lightness of tone, clarity and good diction to carry the content.  There are, of course, one or two exceptions to this rule.

Lightness, clarity of tone and precision is certainly true of Gisela Stille's Pamina and Rainer Trost's Tamino - both warmly engaging as well as finely sung - and true also of Daniel Schmutzhard's Papageno and Dénise Beck's Papagena. The exceptions to the rule, or at least having requirements quite literally far above and deep below the normal range, are of course the roles of Königen der Nacht and Sarastro, and they are very capably handled by Ana Durlovski and Alfred Reiter. Also good is Martin Koch as Monostatos (wearing a very nearly obscene codpiece).

There were quite a few trims applied to the score in this production and not just to the spoken dialogues (no March of the Priests at the start of Act II, Sarastro's 'In diesen heil'gen Hallen' reduced to second verse only, Sarastro, Pamina and Tamino's trio skipped), seemingly with the intention of allowing the work to be played straight through without an interval.  This is perhaps for practical reasons, but still there was nothing here that seemed to compromise the integrity of the work. Much of the Masonic rituals and imagery were also played down in favour of the more exotic Egyptian references in the worship of Isis and Osiris. The production design however on the side of Sarastro and his followers seemed closer to Aztec or Inca pagan rites and sacrifices, with even a dark fantasy look and feel to their costumes, particularly in the Armoured Men scene.  

As productions of Die Zauberflöte go however, the Bregenz production then not only looked great and sounded great, it was played perfectly in the spirit of the work. It's rare that you get all those elements coming together in a way that captures the pure vitality, the meaning and the entertainment of the work as well as this, although unquestionably the emphasis here leans more on the entertainment side of the work than the esoteric. The ability to scale the work up for the Bregenz stage works in its favour in this regard, but that also undoubtedly brings other considerable challenges. It's quite an achievement by Summers and Pountney then that this comes across quite as brilliantly as it does.