Claudio Abbado‘s recording of The Magic Flute has been one of the most astonishing CD releases of 2006.
Rarely has the great German Singspiel seemed so alive and magical, with Abbado’s brisk, dramatic reading and youthful cast.
Though the latter had changed a little for the two Edinburgh performances, the thrill of the music remained.
Daniele Abbado‘s production is another matter, and it treads a dangerously fine line between insight and high camp.
The monster in the opening scene is deliberately cumbersome and hilarious. The Queen of the Night enters in the first act suspended in an imposing globe, which turns gold during her coloratura passage. There are many memorable features to have the duet of Papageno and Pamina in Act One delivered by candlelight on a darkened stage is a gorgeous idea. Visual coups include a leering lion’s face grimacing over the seedy lair of Monostatos and a startling pillar of fire in the Trials scene.
Having said this, direction is lacking from this reading. The eye, when not distracted by trapdoors, descending bridges and moving platforms, frequently found nothing to look at. The dull black panels at the rear of the stage were amateurishly constructed, and their flat symmetry drew the eye to that bare stage floor. This may not have mattered had the principals inhabited it with confidence, but acting ability was distinctly mixed.
Eric Cutler‘s Tamino soared into his upper regions with a ringing timbre, but he was frequently to be found awkwardly standing still, unsure of what to do. His Pamina, Julia Kleiter, used her voice sparingly, and could be overpowered at any moment (and was, in her aria, by a barrage of hacking coughs), but what brilliant phrasing. She did manage to convince in her suffering, but her declaration of love for Tamino was hampered somewhat by the two standing at opposite sides of the stage and looking anywhere but at each other.
The Papageno of Andrea Concetti lacked the preferable baritone resonance in his voice, but his characterisation improved from a shaky start and he began to dominate proceedings in Act Two. He could also count on a nuanced Papagena from Sylvia Schwartz. Queen of the Night Erika Miklsa shot through her two arias with ease, hitting her top Fs with stunning precision and providing meaty tone lower down. Her three ladies were well matched vocally but occasionally out of tune. Once their thighs were exposed, however, this did not seem to matter.
The three Boys soloists of the Tlzer Knabenchor sang with pathos and dignity, and I am tempted to call theirs the best vocal performance of the night beside that of Miklsa. The roaring curtain call was more than deserved. Georg Zeppenfield‘s Sarastro was stretched and his low range uncertainly pitched. Kurt Azesberger‘s Monostatos roared and snarled in pleasing fashion.
But the main reason for seeing this production was the conducting of Claudio Abbado. It did not go as smoothly as it did on the CD by any means, with a fluffed opening to Papageno’s final scene and occasional breakdown between soloists and orchestra, but the interpretation was every bit as breathtaking as one expected. Vibrato on strings was kept to a minimum, woodwind were emphasised, tempi were brisk. Abbado’s alertness to mood was uncanny, while his balance of instruments surpassed nowhere. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra thrilled in tone, while the Arnold Schoenberg Choir sung with meticulous clarity.
With such great musicianship, the drawbacks of the production became apparent. A lot of it was enjoyable: too much was superfluous. Ultimately, Miklsa’s Queen of the Night, the soaring singing of the three Boys and Abbado’s conducting not only saved the evening, but turned it into a memorable, moving night of theatre. There was only a little jealousy that those simultaneously watching a concert performance of The Mastersingers at the Usher Hall did not have directorial quirks to distract them.