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W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
26 Jan 2009

Die Zauberflöte from Opernhaus Zürich

A traditional production of Mozart and Schikaneder's singspiel Die Zauberflöte can go for charm, fantasy, and enjoyable camp. It can also turn trite and cloying.

W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Matti Salminen, Christoph Strehl, Julia Kleiter, Elena Mosuc, Ruben Drole,·Eva Liebau. Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.). Directed by Martin Kušej.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4367 [2DVDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

A strong non-traditional production should stay true to the spirit of the work, essentially a Mason-influenced entertainment, while refreshing the audience with new perspectives. Unfortunately, Martin Kušej’s 2007 staging for Zürich, with sets by Rolf Glittenberg, represents the worst excesses of so-called “regietheater” (director’s theater). The modern-dress updating and sterile sets (like the lobby of some corporate headquarters) begin to suggest fairly early in the recording that Kušej not only disrespects the work but wants the audience to dislike it as well. Only one character/performer manages to escape the cold and clinical approach of the director to connect to the audience, the irrepressible Papageno, in a star-making turn by Ruben Drole.

Of course, Kušej has pockets-full of ideas to throw around. Tamino and Pamina are a married couple, standing stock still before a white screen during the overture, and then suddenly snatched away and carried off separately as they are about to kiss. Not until the end of the opera does Kušej manage to return to this concept, with a filmed sequence of the couple in a Mercedes, possibly driving off to a honeymoon, when they realize they are submerged in water and have to fight to escape. A statement about the confinement of conventional marriage? Perhaps. But to be welcomed after their rescue by Sarastro, hardly the model for connubial bliss, makes no sense.

In between come various twists on a traditional production. Instead of one goofy looking giant snake chasing Tamino, both he and the chorus writhe on the ground, wrestling with a mass of slimy black reptiles. The gray-paneled walls slide back and forth, creating new spaces that always look the same as the previous one, with more door-slamming than in a bedroom farce. At one point the Queen of the Night enters from inside a refrigerator and leaves the same way. Papageno himself makes his first appearance inside an oversize birdcage. See? Get it? Why, you’re almost as clever as Kušej.

A decent cast gives themselves over to the director’s concept, but what that means for almost all of them is a repression of personality and individual style, which makes for dull singing. Christoph Strehl has sung many a Tamino in recent years. Heard here, his dry voice matches all too well the aridity of the concept. Julia Kleiter’s Pamina doesn’t seem to interest Kušej at all, and her scenes are flatly staged. For Monostatos, Kušej decided to go with the original libretto’s dictates of blackface, surely to make his own point about the work’s proclaimed spirituality. Rudolf Schasching is suitably grotesque in the role. The great Matti Salminen as Sarastro sends Monostatos into exile with a knee to the groin. Sarastro can be, possibly should be, a troubling character, hypocritically condemning “hypocrisy,” but the director’s underlining is not helpful. Elena Mosuc hits all the notes as the Queen of the Night, but she is never especially scary or intimidating. More imposing is the physique of the Speaker, Gabriel Bermúdez, whom Kušej presents shirtless, at a basin washing his underarms. For some reason your reviewer suspects Kušej spent a lot of time at rehearsal here, along with an extended scene of Tamino and Papageno in their underwear.

So lively and energetic is the Papageno of Ruben Drole that he seems to have popped in from another production. Perhaps all of Kušej’s sympathies go to the lower-classes - in one fairly interesting twist, it is a crowd of tired, filthy laborers who appear instead of wild animals in response to the flute. But Drole just seems to be an immensely appealing performer, with a charming manner and a most handsome voice. He is well-matched by the buxom Papagena of Eva Liebau.

In the pit Nikolaus Harnoncourt leads the Zürich Opera forces with his trademark enthusiasms for rhythmic angularity and string playing that decidedly stays away from smoothness or conventional tonal beauty. The result veers from fresh and invigorating to scratchy and irritating.

Deutsche Grammophon includes a 45-minute “Behind the Scenes” bonus feature, which pushes the set to two discs. This feature serves as evidence that Europe has also given itself over to TV hosts of creepy jocularity filmed by manic hand-held camera operators.

In the end, this may well be the Zauberflöte DVD for those who don’t really want a Zauberflöte DVD. Talk about precision marketing.

Chris Mullins

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