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Freemasonry today may evoke an image of silly men with their
trouser-legs rolled up giving funny handshakes. It was not always thus:
in Mozart's day it was an important movement promoting, liberty,
equality, democracy and republicanism, ideas that were not particularly
popular at the time. This is why Mozart, and his librettist
Schikaneder, were so keen to produce an opera extolling the virtues of
masonry. For that reason, the plot of the opera can sometimes seem
tedious, and it is not helped by Mozart's sexism and racism. However
the opera contains some of the most sublime music ever written and it
can be wonderfully funny and visually spectacular.
Jonathan Miller is one of the few directors who can successfully impose his own concept on an opera and make us see it in a new light. He does so in this version of the Magic Flute, which he stage directed for Zurich Opera. During the overture we see Tamino waiting outside a Masonic temple. He falls asleep and the implication is that the entire opera is the dream of this young man waiting to be inducted into the masonry. Miller confronts Mozart's sexism head-on.. The opera usually starts with Tamino being chased across the stage by a giant serpent. Miller's version opens with his being confronted by a semi-naked woman with a snake curled around her. The evil serpent is female sexuality and it is the task of the masonry to mortify Tamino's flesh against the temptations of Eve.
Miller confronts Mozart's racism in the same way. There is a Mason-Dixie Monostatus, played by a white man in full Al Jolson make-up wearing a minstrel show costume. The fact that the part is unusually beautifully sung by Volker Vogel does not make us feel less uncomfortable.
Miller passes lightly over the Masonic ritual elements in the plot, making the opera about 20 minutes shorter than its usual length, although I could not spot any obvious cuts in dialogue or music. He also plays down the religious aspects, as befits a good atheist. Sadly, he also cuts out most of the magic: the Three Boys do not sail through the air and the Three Ladies look like Calvinist housewives. However, the boys are unusually tuneful and the ladies are delightfully mellifluous. The rest of the cast is up to Zurich's usual high standards. Papageno is played by Anton Scharinger as an uncomplicated but reasonable person, rather than the usual clown. Piotr Beczala is a rather stuffy Tamino and Malin Hartelius is a fragrant Pamina. Matti Salminen is a sonorous Sarastro. Elena Mosuc makes the Queen of the Night's stratospheric arias seem effortless.
This is a coherent, austere Zauberflöte, and, on the whole, it is successful. It is such an unusual reading that, if you only ever saw one Magic Flute, you would not want it to be this one. But, if you know the work well, this is a refreshingly different and stimulating interpretation.
This is not my favourite production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote this
said. I do prefer the 2003(Covent Garden), 1971(Ustinov-directed),
1982(Salzburg), 1978(Glyndebourne) and Bergman film, while also
enjoying the 1983(with Popp, Araiza and Moll) and the 1991(Met) just as
much. However, I very much liked this Zurich Zauberflote, especially
for the singing.
Some may find that the minimalist settings takes away from some of the opera's magic. Actually I liked the minimalist settings, and I equally liked the serpent at the start, very enticing and somewhat menacing. Although I would have preferred a more magical entrance for the Three Boys, the only real let down with the production were the costumes of the Three Ladies, looking at them(the previous review sums it up quite well I feel) you would not expect them to sing and act the way they did.
When it comes to how the production is presented, one may prefer more audio options but the sound itself is very clear, and the camera work and picture quality are excellent.
Musically, there was always a sense of magic and enthusiasm. Queen of the Night's arias were lightening fast and so exciting to hear, the Overture was brisk and not too broad, the duet between Pamina and Papagaeno was reflective and Sarastro's arias were full of nobility. The orchestra play Mozart's music brilliantly, and Franz Welser-Most's conducting is wonderfully acute.
Great singing too, especially from Matti Salminen and Elena Mosuc. Kurt Moll is still my favourite Sarastro, with Martti Talvela and Hans Sotin not close behind, but Salminen is one of the more impressive "recent" Sarastros, noble and firm dramatically while not too stern, and while his top is volcanic, his basso notes in In Diesen Heil'Gen Hallen are solid as is his musicality and legato. There may be Queen of the Nights with "better" agility than Mosuc such as Damrau, but she still cuts a very chilling presence on stage especially during Der Halle Rosche, and there is evidence of flexible colouratura and not much of the "just sing loud" approach.
Piotr Beczala is a promising Tamino. His beautiful, nuanced singing particularly in Dies Bildnis Ist Bezaubend Schon, affecting chemistry with Hartelius and handsome attire and stage presence more than make up for some moments of stiff acting. Malin Hartelius is a very moving Pamina, I still think her best Mozart role is Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung Aus Dem Serail, but Hartelius has so much beauty in her singing and her stage presence is natural.
Anton Scharinger is a very entertaining Papagaeno, hearty, funny yet very charming. Some might be turned off by his drunk act during Ein Madchen Oder Weibchen, but I admit that I found it kind of fun. Papagaena is witty and sweet, and her sense of comedy is a joy. The Three Boys are suitably angelic, Monostatos is good and characterful if nothing mind-blowing and The Three Ladies despite their pretty awful costumes are very imposing and blend wonderfully. Overall, worthwhile and very well sung, just not one of the best I've seen. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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