Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Die Zauberflöte review – first revival of Barbe & Doucet’s production at Glyndebourne

18, 22, 25, 29 May, 1, 8, 14, 21, 24, 27, 30 June, 3, 6, 13, 18, 21 July 2024

Constantin Trinks’ conducting debut at the East Sussex festival is a triumph.

Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd (Photo: Bill Knight)

Although it is only five years since André Barbe & Renaud Doucet’s production of Die Zauberflöte premiered, it already feels like a Glyndebourne classic. This is partly because its first appearance in 2019 was complemented by a semi-staged performance at the Proms and an airing on BBC 4, but mainly because it fits its setting so well. Glyndebourne is all about enjoying an extraordinary day away from our normal lives, and so a staging that feels this magical provides the right experience for the occasion. The production’s meticulous attention to detail also ensures we become immersed in the world we see, in a way that would not be possible in a larger opera house where the same type of details would become lost in the space.

Barbe & Doucet set the action in an hotel in the early 20th century, having been inspired by figures such as Anna Sacher, the pioneering proprietor of Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, and Rosa Lewis, the owner and cook of London’s Cavendish Hotel. It is an appropriate setting because by the time the different scenes have shown us not only the foyer and conservatory, but normally ‘out of bounds’ areas such as the kitchen, boiler room and wine cellar, the hotel feels just as mysterious as Sarastro’s realm, with its temples, pyramids, gardens and mountains, ever could. As would have been the case when the opera first appeared in Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in 1791, the scenery mainly comprises backdrops that are all hand drawn by Barbe. Like David Hockney’s Hogarth inspired designs for The Rake’s Progress, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1975, three dimensional objects such as hanging meats in the kitchen and hanging bats in the wine cellar appear on two dimensional surfaces. With all of the backdrops being in black and white, the influence of both Gustave Doré and M C Escher feels clear and the boiler room, where Monostatos holds Pamina prisoner, is especially effective as the wall that supposedly juts out between two entrances reveals a strong command of perspective. 

Many of the characters assume roles within the hotel so that the Boys (Oliver Barlow, Sam Jackman and Oliver Hull who alternate performances with Alex Wright, Oliver Michael and Edi Haka) are bellboys; the Speaker of the Temple (Michael Kraus who shares the role with Dingle Yandell) is a sommelier complete with drinks trolley; the Priests (John Findon and Callum Thorpe, who also sing the Armed Men) are dressed as chefs, and Monastatos (Alasdair Elliott) is head of the hotel’s manual labourers. 

Much of the magic derives from the use of puppetry, designed by Patrick Martel, with the serpent at the start being formed entirely out of plates, pots and pans. No attempt is made to hide those who operate it, and yet we find that we either hardly notice the puppeteers or that they actually enhance the effect. Although the puppetry creates some compelling visual images, it also supports the drama in other ways. For example, during ‘Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton’ a calf who lies in pieces as a carcass in the kitchen keeps coming to life as the puppeteers reattach its body parts. This move, while being highly entertaining, reveals the restorative power of Tamino’s flute.

“…a staging that feels this magical provides the right experience for the occasion”

Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd (Photo: Bill Knight)

The touches throughout are extremely effective so that the Voices that cry ‘Zurück!’ when Tamino approaches the Temples of Reason and Nature are illustrated by a dumb waiter opening its doors as if they are moving lips, and a pile of fruit and vegetables rising to form a man who could have come straight from an Arcimboldo painting. When a series of drawers in some shelves open to varying degrees to create steps that the Boys can walk down, we realise just how much design has gone into the sets.

To counter the accusation of misogyny that has been levelled against the opera, Barbe & Doucet draw attention to the Suffragette movement. When the Priests instruct Tamino and Papageno to beware women’s tricks, the female chorus parade ‘Votes for Women’ placards. In Act II the Queen of the Night sports a coat with ‘Deeds not Words’ printed on it, and, far from being cast out at the end, she and Sarastro reach a new level of understanding as both characters appear equally changed by their experiences. 

While, however, the message that true enlightenment comes through embracing equality is a good one, making it the central thesis of this opera is not entirely without its problems. The journey through fire simply sees Pamina cook a fish meal while in the subsequent one through water Tamino does the washing up. The visuals may be stunning, but it undermines the point that the pair face these trials together. The fact they are dividing the labour between them may say something about the way in which they have become enlightened by learning to live as true equals. At the same time, however, we come dangerously close to seeing Tamino and Pamina ‘simply’ enjoy a happy marriage, when the whole point of the opera is that it is Papageno who is content just to settle for that. As a result, we are left wondering in what way Tamino, who is supposed to represent something quite different, really distinguishes himself from Papageno.

On his Glyndebourne debut, Constantin Trinks elicits an extremely warm sound from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which can be highly sensitive when necessary but overall has a strong sense of forward propulsion. As Tamino Paul Appleby reveals a smooth, persuasive and often ethereal sounding tenor, while as Pamina Lauren Snouffer’s soprano combines a sumptuous feel with notable clarity. With his secure baritone, Rodion Pogossov is quite a sensitive Papageno who certainly arouses our sympathy, while Julieth Lozano Rolong makes much of the small role of Papagena. James Platt with his rich, dark bass is a class act as Sarastro while Alina Wunderlin, who plays the Queen of the Night for the first three performances before Aleksandra Olczyk takes over, delivers a spellbinding performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ as her coloratura feels as impassioned as it is undoubtedly accomplished.  

• Glyndebourne’s 2024 festival continues until 25 August, while its autumn season runs from 10 October to 15 December. For further details and tickets visit its website.

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