There are not many performances of The Magic Flute where, before a single note has even been played, the conductor is asking the audience for volunteers to deliver the dialogue for the Three Ladies and three men. That, however, is exactly what conductor Iván Fischer did, and although it was soon obvious that the people he chose were plants, it still set the tone for the evening.
Fischer was adamant that the Budapest Festival Orchestra was presenting a concert staging of the opera, and not a semi-staged performance, which implies a degree of half-heartedness. The opera was originally performed in Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, a venue famed for its fairytales and comedies, with the production including sixteen set changes and real lions, monkeys and serpents. This concert staging, which has been presented in many cities, represented an attempt to capture the spirit of the original for, although it was less resource intensive than the average staged production today, its approach provided enormous scope to produce a variety of effects.
In the Royal Festival Hall, a huge screen lay at the front of the stage and revealed a storybook. Its front cover bore pictures of the sun and moon before the ‘pages’ were turned to reveal a picture of Tamino fighting the serpent. The illustrations were beautiful and imaginative, frequently enabling things to happen that could never be rendered on a conventional stage. For example, during the ‘Pa… pa… pa…’ duet images of Papageno and Papagena (that portrayed them very much as bird-people) were projected before more and more offspring appeared in turn. On the other hand, the journeys through fire and water were rendered slightly disappointingly with still images depicting a flame pattern and a submerged iceberg.
The surtitles appeared as prose on the book’s pages, so that they appeared in sections, rather than one line at a time. Whenever a line containing a moral was uttered this appeared in italic as might be found in a fairytale. The opera was sung in German (enunciation was of a very high standard) but the melodrama was delivered in English. It felt like a very liberal translation, although one that captured the spirit of the original words well, and by introducing so much of the original dialogue it reminded us of just how much is cut from most productions today.
Many parts had two people playing them, one to sing and the other for the dialogue. This sometimes spoilt the flow by introducing a degree of fussiness, but it did mean there were no mistakes in the delivery and pronunciation of the English. On many occasions things were planned so that one of the two was on stage while the other’s voice was heard from off it, and sometimes jokes were written into the whole idea. For example, Papageno sang ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ with the actor lying asleep, so that when the elderly Papagena appeared afterwards the singer desperately tried to wake the actor as if to say ‘this one’s your problem’.
An innovative approach like this only works when it is supported by genuine substance, and happily this performance boasted excellent musical credentials. The orchestra produced playing of exquisite refinement and impeccable balance, as it was situated in close proximity to the audience. The seats in the first few rows of the auditorium were removed to make way for the players, which, with the hall’s slope, was the equivalent to placing the orchestra in a sunken pit. The soloists performed at the front of the stage with the screen directly behind them. However, a few spoken sections took place around the hall and just occasionally the stage was opened up. Various instrumentalists frequently played offstage and sometimes the entire orchestra moved to play on it. This meant that Act II saw a constant stream of players creeping in and out of the ‘pit’, with the sight of their crouching bodies attempting to be inconspicuous being a part of the fun.
The singing also contributed to the strength of the evening. As Tamino Bernard Richter had a full, expansive and highly pleasing tenor, while, as Pamina, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s soprano was blessed with sweetness, beauty and strength. Hanno Müller-Brachmann brought a lovely persona and excellent baritone voice to his portrayal of Papageno, while Krisztián Cser revealed the most masterly bass as Sarastro with his rendition of ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ standing out for its vibrancy. Mandy Fredrich also carried off the Queen of the Night with an outstanding performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ in which her coloratura was rendered with precision and, it would seem, ease.
It is a slight shame that this performance of The Magic Flute had to fall so soon after the first revival of Simon McBurney’s production for English National Opera, which also included video projections, the breaking of the fourth wall and interaction between singers and players. The two are not, however, the same thing, and when the screen rose at the end to reveal the entire orchestra on stage, with the singers among the players, it capped a joyous evening that through innovative means did much to capture the essential spirit of The Magic Flute as a fairytale.