Simon McBurney's production is a roller coaster that revamps the magic in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
The Dutch National Opera kicks off the new season with a production that has proved to be succesful at the Amsterdam Muziektheater before. It was an instant hit at the 2012 premiere, received a lot of acclaim in London (at the English National Opera), the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence and was already endowed with a DVD release. Now, six years later, Simon McBurley's production didn't lose anything of its impact and power to attrack a new audience to Die Zauberflöte.
Simon McBurney, who already astonished us with his production for Alexander Raskatov's 'A Dog's Heart' (the collaboration between theatre man McBurney and composer Raskatov yielded theatre of a rare level, there will be few productions in which opera and staging have found each other so seamlessly), confronts Die Zauberflöte with his seemingly childlike curiosity. His initial unfamiliarity with the opera, bordering on aversion (what is h*ll is this piece actually about?) results in a production in which McBurney shares with us, the audience, in an irresistible way, his own amazement about the sometimes inimitable scenes and storylines. With a lot of inventiveness he shines light in the sometimes muddy world of The Magic Flute and does not forget that Mozart's opera, commissioned by Schikaneder, is besides an important piece in music history, above all an excellent piece of entertainment. It was Mozart's almost-last opera (after this he would only be able to get the rush job La Clemenza di Tito done) in which Salzburg's most famous son explored the boundaries of the genre and, to quote Richard Wagner, delivered the first real German opera. An opera that would, by its innovative concept, inspire Carl Maria von Weber for Der Freischütz and Oberon (the source material for Die Zauberflöte came from a collection of oriental fairy tales by Christoph Martin Wielands, the author who wrote the heroic poem Oberon).
Die Zauberflöte, opera or Singspiel, with its many dialogues, its leaps and bounds between seriousness and jollity, can sometimes give the impression of patchwork. A conglomerate of too much ideas in which the final result does not always exceed the sum of the individual parts. A theatrical layer of sufficient substance is necessary to make the music and the spoken word into a convincing whole. McBurney connects the spoken word to inventive action with finds that are as simple as they are brilliant (for example, the birds that fly around Papageno are simple sheets of white paper in the hands of actors that make fluttering movements with them) and keeps the pace of the action high. There are video projections (they provide a very beautiful fire and water trail) and decorations with a keen eye for contrast (the Drei Knaben with their lovely voices look like they come straight out of a horror movie). Everything about the production breathes freedom and displays a virtuoso handling of the source material (with humour that is really funny and not bland). In addition, the playground for the singers/actors is not limited to the stage. Especially Papageno, a fantastic role of Thomas Oliemans, reaches in the role of the bird catching bohemian literally the audience beyond the front rows.
All involved, both singers and musicians, have an active part in the acting part. For playing the flute Tamino (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) calls upon the flutist in the orchestra pit (no shaky mime act here) and conductor Antonello Manacorda (who spend his time between this production in Amsterdam and Romeo Castelucci's production of Die Zauberflöte in Brussels) not only indicates the entries and the tempo of the music but also shows his (feigned) horror about Papageno's clumsy (and hilarious) behaviour.
In his search for the heart of Die Zauberflöte, for what the opera actually is and what it stands for, McBurney takes the opera far away from the realm of child operas and stiff productions that the catalogue of the Magic Flute is so lavishly filled with. It results in a night at the opera that is like a fantastic voyage in which many (read: yours truly) are exposed, for the first time, to the theatrical beauty of the piece. A performance in which a few side notes that can be made about the vocal performances are no more than just that, minor details in a terrific whole (the voices of the three ladies who save Tamino from the dragon could have harmonized a bit more beautiful with each other and the bass of Dmitry Ivaschenko (Sarastro) lacked some definition in the lower regions of the singing parts).
Die Zauberflöte is an opera about the battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, with strong references to the Freemasonry, the fraternal order from which Mozart and librettist Schikaneder both were members. A group, led by Sarastro here, that abducts children to evade the unreasonable and hysterical influence of their mother. Reason and science show themselves a bit unreasonable and harsh (it's waiting for a production in which Sarastro's temple order is portrayed as the Church of Scientology).
The Queen of the Night is here a fragile old woman. She moves with a cane and sings her famous aria with breakneck coloratura and high F's in a wheelchair. She represents evil and Sarastro, in contrast to Tito, the title hero from the other 'last' Mozart opera, does not grant her forgiveness. This forgiveness still befalls her by the way Pamina (a sensitive role of Mari Eriksmoen) caresses her at the end. It is a human end of an opera in which black and white both become a bit greyer. A production in which Monostatos (a creepy Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is white and the references in the text to his dark skin have disappeared. Not gone are the sexist, misogynistic parts in the libretto that - even for someone who does not advocate a sanitized version of Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto - are hard to ignore. Although the stereotypical portrayal of the reasonable man and the mentally unstable woman is more laughable than that it fuels the indignation (the knowledge that the patriarchal views that fed those lyrics are far from gone prevents an all too hilarious response however).
With Die Zauberflöte, McBurney delivers once again a staging that gives an incredible added value to an opera that, as an audio-only document, is mainly enjoyable when the dialogues have been seriously cut. In that respect, his Zauberflöte may well be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk in the true sense of the word. A performance in which music, text and theatre are all an equal part of the final result. A theatre experience that makes one curious for more and that makes one hope (this is after all the Wagner-Heavy Metal website) that Simon McBurney will venture into a Wagner opera in the not too distant future.
Dutch National Opera 14 September 2018
Dates 7 September untill 29 September 2018
Conductor: Antonello Manacorda
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra
Stage director: Simon McBurney
Decor: Michael Levine
Sarastro: Dmitry Ivaschenko
Tamino: Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Pamina: Mari Eriksmoen
Papageno: Thomas Oliemans
Der Sprecher: Maarten Koningsberger
Königin der Nacht: Nina Minasyan
Ein altes Weib (Papagena): Lilian Farahani
Monostatos: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
- Wouter de Moor