Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 51: Die Zauberflöte @ Royal Albert Hall, London

27 August 2019

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

This semi-staged performance of Die Zauberflöte was adapted by Donna Stirrup from Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2019 production by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet. In many ways, this gave us reasons to be thankful because it meant that we got to experience a performance that had fundamentally enjoyed around six weeks of rehearsals, whereas most concert or semi-staged performances of operas are lucky to have had six days.

The setting for the action was a hotel restaurant, with the hotel presumably standing as a ‘cathedral of commerce’, and the kitchen as its beating heart or inner sanctum. In this way, the serpent was constructed out of a series of plates with an egg box for its head; the Boys (Daniel Todd, Simeon Wren and Felix Barry-Casademunt) were bellboys; the Speaker of the Temple (Michael Kraus) was a sommelier complete with drinks trolley; the Priests (Martin Snell and Thomas Atkins, who also played the Armed Men) were dressed as chefs, while the chorus donned chef’s hats and menus that lit up. Much use was also made of puppetry so that during ‘Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton’ a calf was about to be butchered on the table, but kept coming to life again as the various puppeteers moved around to re-attach its head to its body.

In Act I the use of costumes and props generated just the right level of dynamism so that one was left feeling that what worked well here might have felt terribly overblown at Glyndebourne with the addition of a complete infrastructure. In Act II, however, it seemed the other way around as one suspected that ideas that here felt half-baked would make more sense in the full production. For example, the accusations against Die Zauberflöte of misogyny are certainly worthy of exploration, irrespective of the conclusions reached. However, when at the moment in which the Priests set Tamino and Papageno their first task, the female chorus, dressed as Suffragettes, held ‘Votes for Women’ placards in response to the warning about women’s wiles, it felt like a clumsy attempt to acknowledge the issue without really saying anything deeper about it. It started to make more sense later on as the issue was explored in more detail, but one suspected that in the original production the relevance would have hit us earlier on.

The ‘staging’ certainly had its weaker moments. Papageno sang ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ while preparing a meal, so that his focus felt quite inward looking in an aria that begs to be delivered outwards to the audience in every way. The journey through fire simply saw Pamina baking while in the subsequent one through water Tamino did the washing up. Not only did these feel far too safe for what should be dangerous and momentous trials, but they undermined the entire point that these are challenges that the pair face together. The point that Pamina carried out the major task while Tamino played a supporting role may have fitted with what this production was trying to say, but undermined the original to quite an alarming degree.

Similarly, at one point the Boys carried puppets of Tamino and Papageno, with the real figures responding to each and every manipulation of the strings. However, amusing though it was, surely the Boys are there to guide rather than control these characters, and if the wider point is that really they are being controlled, it felt a step too far to suggest that it was by this trio. This said, ‘Pa… pa… pa…’ was hilarious as it was impossible not to laugh as six babies in turn shot out of an oven, especially since one baby’s head (accidentally it seems) flew off as it did so!

The ending was also successful as it saw the Suffragette theme developed more fully to create a conclusion that felt enlightening in every sense. In this version the Queen of the Night and Sarastro walked off together, but there was a sense in which both had learnt from, and been changed by, their experiences. In this respect, the Queen of the Night was accepted into the fold, but not in any subservient sense as Sarastro himself sported a ‘Votes for Women’ sash. It was also interesting, however, that the only couple who graced the stage at the end were Papageno and Papagena, suggesting that theirs was the only truly natural and unforced relationship in the entire story.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was extremely smooth and balanced, while the cast was superb. The highest accolades go to Caroline Wettergreen’s Queen of the Night, with the beauty and control that she displayed in her coloratura making her a class act in every sense. It was also interesting to see how there was a certain sense of calm and understatement in her gestures in ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’, but that by the time of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ her ability to micromanage how she presented herself had given way to desperation, making her appear far more overtly forceful.

Sofia Fomina as Pamina revealed a very aesthetically pleasing and impeccably shaped soprano, making her performance of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ particularly moving. David Portillo displayed a highly pleasing tenor as Pamino, while Brindley Sherratt was an extremely fine Sarastro, Jörg Schneider an accomplished Monostatos and Alison Rose a splendid Papagena. Finally, Glyndebourne favourite Björn Bürger threw himself completely into the role of Papageno, even earning extra points for responding so well to quite an audible audience reaction along the lines of ‘I’ll have you’ as he sang ‘Papagena! Papagena! Papagena! Weibchen, Täubchen, meine Schöne’.

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Prom 51: Die Zauberflöte @ Royal Albert Hall, London