Sunday 25 November 2018

Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (La Monnaie, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Antonello Manacorda, Romeo Castellucci, Ed Lyon, Sabine Devieilhe, Sophie Karthäuser, Georg Nigl, Elina Galitskaya, Gábor Bretz, Dietrich Henschel, Tineke van Ingelgem, Angélique Noldus, Esther Kuiper

ARTE Concert - 27 September 2018

As if you couldn't already guess from the fact that it's Romeo Castellucci at La Monnaie, the opening pre-musical sequence alerts you pretty quickly to the fact that this is not going to be a 'traditional' Magic Flute by any means. A man walks onto the empty stage and throws a steel bar at a glowing glass neon tube until it breaks plunging the stage into darkness. Yeah, you think, it's The Magic Flute, we get it; light/darkness, enlightenment/obscurantism, a lot of ritual and symbolism. If you think Castellucci is going to be that obvious, you quickly realise that you're going to have to think again.

But yes, certainly Castellucci tends to find the big underlying contrasts or forces in conflict within an opera and brings them to the fore to the point where they are what the opera is all about. The actual stage directions and dramatic narrative are soon left behind as Castellucci usually starts to push those ideas even further into god knows where. (See his recent Moses und Aron or Tannhäuser). You might take for granted that Die Zauberflöte is all about masonic rituals with fairy tale characters and situations, but you're not going to see any of that in a Castellucci production. Doesn't that mean you lose something of the essential character of Mozart? Unquestionably yes, but can we trust Castellucci to give back something of equal worth?

Maybe not of equal worth, but there is something here in the La Monnaie production, no matter how obscure it gets, that approaches Mozart's work in a new way and provides a commentary on it as well as interacting and highlighting less familiar aspects of the work. There are perhaps no major new revelations and it might not all fit together in any way that is entirely comprehensible, but Castellucci does relate Mozart's Magic Flute to our experiences of the world today and that is bound to be more meaningful than any play on ancient masonic rituals, magic and obscure symbolism (not that Castellucci doesn't have even more obscure symbolism of his own).

So no, there's no serpent slain by Tamino and there's no traditional depiction of the three ladies. There's actually four here in the first Act and four boys too which totally screws up the numerology which is often considered to be important in the work. But is it really? By changing the numbers, Romeo Castellucci is able to steer the work in a new direction, one where symmetry and mirroring takes its place. There is certainly this contrasting of two sides of one human nature (an important aspect that Castellucci takes pains later to ensure is not neglected) in the divisions of the Königin/Sarastro, Tamino/Pamina, Papageno/Papagena, in male/female, in lightness/darkness, in rationalism/obscurantism, in good/evil.

It's also there in the division and structure of the opera itself and Castellucci contrasts the two Acts in a way that highlights aspects of the opera quite unlike anyone else has done before. Act I is all elegance, beauty, balance and symmetry in a uniform haze of brilliant white; by no means the obvious way to reflect this half of the opera, but if you like you can see it as a visual representation of Mozart's music itself. That's emphasised by the costumes which are period 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs. Papageno is indistinguishable from Tamino in identical elaborate costumes and there isn't a single scene, action or gesture that reflects the familiar course of the opera's dramatic action. You can be damned sure that there's going to be no actual magic flute or glockenspiel.

Instead figures move around in an elaborately choreographed display of symmetrical precision, with rotating patterns of white masked dancers, some topless with feather headdresses and fans like something out of the Crazy Horse in Paris. Architect Michael Hansmeyer's set designs however continue to accumulate detail, building up into an elaborate wedding cake or the stucco interior of some impossibly grand white cathedral. It is an extraordinary display, utterly beautiful, daring to ignore adherence to any traditional depiction of the drama in favour of just highlighting the elegance and beauty and symmetry in Mozart's music. It's something that is enhanced - or works both ways - with the nimble musical performance from the orchestra pit under Antonello Manacorda emphasising the melodic brilliance and effervescence with a wonderful lightness of touch.

As extraordinarily beautiful as it all looks, it's also a very cold and sterile way to approach Mozart and The Magic Flute, but of course that's only half the story. In direct contrast to elaborate representation of the music in Act I, Castellucci brings the work down to earth in Act II with a depiction of the human reality that can also be found in Die Zauberflöte which might otherwise be lost amidst all the comedy, symbolism and ritualism. Similar to his last production at La Monnaie, Orphée et Eurydice, Castellucci brings the experiences of real ordinary people in to highlight the underlying human reality of the questions of the trials endured by Tamino and Papageno. A group of six women talk about their personal experience of blindness and living in darkness, and a group of six men talk about surviving horrific burns in a 'trial of fire'.

In contrast to Act I the second half is depicted in mundane real-world terms in a warehouse environment, the glamorous fairy-tale white period costumes swapped for identical yellow-brown factory worker overalls and yellow-blond wigs. The performances are more dramatically realistic, you can at least sometimes tell characters apart from the labels on their back and there's even an actual flute! Inevitably there's a lot more than this in the production and as is often the case with Castellucci it goes off in all kinds of weird directions. Mirroring/contrasting the opening of the first Act, for example, the second part opens with lactating mothers pumping breast milk - for real - into it bottles that are subsequently emptied into another glass tube by the Queen of the Night, the action accompanied by some obscure text that presents a different perspective on the less than flattering idea of motherhood traditionally represented by Königin der Nacht in the opera.

In this way, Castellucci actually deconstructs Die Zauberflöte entirely, separating the work down into its component parts, none of which on their own are convincing or satisfactory but which when played through to the end do nonetheless still manage to capture the totality of what is in the opera. It's highly doubtful that the work needs to be deconstructed in this manner or even benefits from it in any way when it's all there already in the genius of Mozart's blending of all its elements, but it does highlight aspects that we (or other directors) might neglect though familiarity. The 'real-people's lives' human element while looking initially like a frustrating diversion, turns out to be very moving, so there is a case to be made for it.

Evidently as far as stage direction, concept and interpretation go this is not a Magic Flute for everyone and, despite its fidelity to the themes in the work and its underlying humanity, it can't be said that it respects Mozart's intentions. In terms of musical and singing performances however it's hard to fault. The orchestra highlight that compositional and melodic brilliance in the first half and seem to find the human warm in the opera in the second half. The casting is an outstanding collection of lyrical Mozartian voices with Ed Lyon as Tamino, Sabine Devieilhe a lighter than usual but eminently capable Königin der Nacht, Gábor Bretz a fine Sarastro, Sophie Karthäuser an impressive Pamina, Georg Nigl and Elena Galitskaya fulfilling the roles of Papageno and Papagena well, each of them at least brilliantly distinguishable from their voices if not always in appearance or role-playing.

Links: La Monnaie-DeMunt, ARTE Concert