Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has never been the easiest of pieces to stage. In nineteenth century Germany it became caught between the advocates of Italian and Romantic opera, and bridging the gap between its fun and religious aspects, its obvious magic and deeper symbolism, has remained difficult to this day. If, however, doing full justice to one or more of the piece’s elements risks sacrificing something of the others, David McVicar’s 2003 production, revived here by Thomas Guthrie, goes a considerable way towards squaring the circle. It does this by offering a frequently quiet staging that nonetheless allows each of the opera’s disparate elements to breathe uninhibited. It keeps the humorous aspects under control while allowing the emotional and symbolic elements to speak, unimpeded by an overly lavish set-up.
The production certainly has its sillier moments as the curtain rises on a dopey looking serpent, and Papageno’s entrance is accompanied by a bird pushed along on wheels who proceeds to outwit the bird-catcher, at least during ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’ itself. If, however, Mozart’s collaboration with Emanuel Schikaneder is, as Sarah Lenton describes it, a ‘jumble of farce and sublimity’ the former element requires just as much attention as the latter.
John Macfarlane’s set, coolly yet brilliantly lit by Paule Constable, sees deliberately ill proportioned columns run down both sides of the stage, which give the resulting structure a post-modern feel. These can be relatively compressed to suggest an overbearing, enclosed space, or open out to create a far larger area.
The staging often prevails precisely because of its simplicity. The (frequently triangular) formations made by the three Ladies (Rebecca Nash, Angela Simkin and Susan Platts on excellent form) as they sing ‘Ich sollte fort?’ are simple and stylised, but work well alongside their astute gestures. Similarly, Papageno and Pamina’s ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ is wonderfully effective as two tiny figures huddle at the front of the stage to reflect on love. The simple tableau formed as Siobhan Stagg’s Pamina puts heart and soul into ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ is also deeply moving, with her impassioned, yet controlled, singing both contrasting and blending with the silence of the statuesque Tamino and crouching Papageno.
The production includes a relatively large group of actors who across the evening move between playing humans, animals, puppeteers and props. When the Queen of the Night first appears some of them as people join the three Ladies in bowing before her to make her entrance feel all the more dramatic. They also, however, operate the serpent and rise from the floor to, for example, give Papageno a glass of wine, so that their ever-changing roles hand the entire production an appropriate sense of theatricality. It should also be remembered that Die Zauberflöte was originally performed in Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, a venue as famed for its fairytales and comedies as its Goethe, with the production including sixteen set changes and real lions, monkeys and serpents. That may be one reason why having the actors play animals, only with human traits as the warthogs carry walking sticks and the birds walk on stilts, works so well. It also helps to generate an overarching fantastical air.
If the production generally knows when to be exuberant and when to hold something back it is at its weakest when it gets the decision on what to do on a particular occasion wrong. The journeys through fire and water feel a little lame, as they merely see the actors gyrating and swaying. McVicar may well have been concerned that the movement should complement and not overwhelm the delicate music, but he is perhaps a little too sensitive towards its requirements to the detriment of generating any real sense of drama with the spectacle. In addition, amusing though it is to see the two Priests (‘old hands’ Harry Nicoll and Donald Maxwell on typically good form) involuntarily jiving to Papageno’s ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ the spectacle seems too small for the Royal Opera stage. It might have been better either to have let Papageno sing the aria totally unimpeded, or to have injected it with far more activity.
The cast includes some class acts, and several further highly pleasing performances. As Pamina, Siobhan Stagg makes an extremely impressive Royal Opera main stage debut, bringing her sweet soprano to the fore in her very committed and astutely observed performance. As Tamino, Mauro Peter reveals a large, warm and generally expansive tenor instrument on his first appearance at the Royal Opera House, and if his upper register feels a little restricted as he warms up, any associated difficulties are soon overcome. Roderick Williams is a brilliantly spirited and entertaining Papageno. Vocally, this most accomplished of baritones seems very much within his comfort zone, and on occasions one feels as if he could assert his voice more. Nevertheless, it means that what he does deliver is always smooth, rounded and polished and his voice works perfectly in quieter, more contemplative moments such as when he sings ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ with Pamina.
Peter Bronder is outstanding, both vocally and dramatically, as Monastatos, while Mika Kares makes an excellent Royal Opera debut as Sarastro, revealing a firm voice in which his deepest bass notes are particularly impressive, and a strong noble presence. The three Child-spirits, Edward Hyde, Aidan Cole and Gaius Davey Bartlett, produce some immensely accomplished singing, while Sabine Devieilhe, also making her Royal Opera debut, is a revelation as the Queen of the Night. Elegant of bearing, she has immense allure and her performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ reveals cleanness, subtlety and accuracy as she demonstrates beautiful coloratura and impeccable phrasing. Julia Jones, who also conducted the 2013 revival, is strong in the pit, achieving lithe, thoughtfully paced and extremely well balanced playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.
Die Zauberflöte will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 20 September, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.