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Reviews

19 Jul 2019

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Die Zauberflöte: Glyndebourne, 18th July 2019

A review by Claire Seymour

Photo credit: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper

 

After all, when Tamino arrives at Sarastro’s temple on his quest to rescue Pamina he is instructed by a Priest that Sarastro is not a daughter-kidnapping tyrant, as the Queen of the Night has declared, but rather rules by wisdom. Tamino is advised to ignore the words of women who do little but chatter: a man who believes the wagging tongues of these idle gossipers is a fool. Later, in Act 2, the Priests again warn against the treachery of women but the misogyny reaches a peak when Sarastro responds to Pamina’s desperate pleas to be freed so that she can be re-united with her mother, “A man must guide your heart, for without him every woman oversteps her bounds.”

Without going into the ‘history’ of the Queen of the Night’s mission - considered “arrogant” by Sarastro - to win back the ‘Sun-Circle’ that her father bequeathed to Sarastro - it seems not unreasonable to argue, as some scholars do, that ‘the conflict between the realms of light and darkness in the opera is at its core a gendered conflict’ or that ‘the gender codes of the opera … reveal a basic sympathy with light or with darkness, respectively’. [1]

André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, whose new production of Die Zauberflöte has opened at Glyndebourne, avow a “real sympathy for the Queen of the Night” whose story they connect to “the broader theme of women’s rights” and the early 20th-century suffrage movement. And, the notion of a ‘feminist’ subversion of Schikaneder’s tale of the journey from feminine darkness to masculine enlightenment is intriguing. Presumably, one would need to shift the singspiel from its 18th-century context, where, generally speaking, the masculine = reason (i.e. good) and the feminine = passion (i.e. bad), and Rousseau’s belief that ‘The search for abstract and speculative truths … is beyond woman’s grasp’ (Book 5, Emile) was widely held (and accords with Sarastro’s thoughts entirely). This Barbe and Doucet duly do, setting the drama in an Edwardian hotel, where Sarastro’s Restaurant serves in place of Temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature.

Apparently, research into the Viennese origins of Die Zauberflöte led Barbe & Doucet to the Sacher Hotel, situated close to the Vienna State Opera. Anna Sacher, who became manager after her husband’s death in 1907, acquired a reputation for eccentricity and economic mismanagement in equal measure, chain-smoking cigars as she excluded plebeian clientele while pampering to impoverished aristocrats. From there, the duo made a hospitality hop to London’s Cavendish Hotel where Rosa Lewis, whose culinary skills had seen her rise up the society ladder, and entertain American millionaires and English royalty.

Caroline Wettergreen QofN.jpgCaroline Wettergreen (Queen of the Night). Photo credit: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper.

Barbe’s beautiful pen-and-ink cloth-drops create a singular locale: a grand hotel in all its stratified glories and gloominess, from its shady lower pantries to its sparkling luxury penthouse, by way of the wine cellar, kitchens and food stores, butler’s office, reception lobby and palm court conservatory. The designs produce some neat trompe l’oeil effects, and evoke at times a picture-book fairy-tale, as cardboard cut-out figures arrive in the lobby or canoodle in the corners of the conservatory.

Conventionally in Die Zauberflöte, Tamino’s enlightenment quest is represented as a journey from the subterranean darkness of the Queen of the Night via purification by fire and water to the heavenly sun of Sarastro’s masculine rationalism. But, it was Anna Sacher’s husband Eduard (son of confectioner Franz of Sachertorte fame) who was the restaurateur, and in their Upstairs-Downstairs domain Barbe & Doucet invert the norm, making Sarastro head chef overseeing an energetic kitchen and silver service team, and raising the Queen, via an elegant double staircase and gleaming baroque balcony, to a top-floor apartment. Yet, it’s still the women who seem to do all the skivvying, dashing about during the overture’s fugal busyness armed with towering piles of plates and platters, cleaning up spillages with new-fangled floor-hoovers, and spic-and-spanning the kitchen floors in preparation for a pre-service pep talk by Sarastro.

The maids might get a bit edgy when forced to listen to Head Chef’s more misogynist utterances. And, when Tamino and Papageno are down in the cellar being prepared for their ritual ordeals, angry, placard-waving suffragettes race to and fro in the background, pursued by some bobbies-on-the-beat. But, Barbe & Doucet allow the ‘feminist fury’ to fizzle out and replace it with games and gimmicks - eye-catching and inventive, no doubt - which dilute the ‘seriousness’ of their ‘message’.

It’s the eternal conundrum of Die Zauberflöte: how to balance the folky, sometimes vulgar, comedy with the high-minded gravity? Having begun by establishing a ‘concept’ which seems serious in intent, Barbe & Doucet smother it with spectacle. A pyjamaed-Tamino sleep-walks through the hotel lobby pursued by an outsize cantilevered centipede, assembled from assorted crockery. Pillow-puppet birds burst from the bird-catcher’s wicker chest to dance and dive during Papageno’s first aria, pushing the bird-catcher himself - an eye-catchingly clad travelling salesman in emerald green suit and bowler hat with clashing red socks, a veritable cockerel cock-tail - to the margins. Tamino’s flute-playing doesn’t so much as charm the wild beasts as reconnects the head and body of a calf that has been slaughtered by the hotel’s butchery department. Most impressive of all, the two Armed Men are represented by two 18ft-high puppets: it’s as if War Horse has met Star Wars within Downton Abbey.

Speaker and Papageno.jpgMichael Kraus (Speaker) and Björn Bürger (Papageno). Photo credit: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper.

But, it’s not clear what the panoply of puppets are there for … and the hotpot of culinary motifs keeps bubbling. The three mischievous ‘bell-boys’ enter through the dumb-waiter; the Speaker is a sommelier wearing a grape-bunch patterned jacket. What of the journey toward enlightenment - is it to be religious, spiritual, socio-political … or simply gastronomic, à la Masterchef?

I guess the singspiel’s ‘initiation rituals’ don’t ‘fit’ the Barbe & Doucet concept: after all, Tamino journeys from childhood to manhood, from feminine darkness to masculine illumination, instructed to ‘be steadfast, patient, and silent’ - all the things women are supposedly not. After the Three Ladies leave, having tried in vain to convince Tamino and Papageno to return to the Queen’s fold, the latter smugly sing, “A man is firm in spirit; he thinks before he speaks.” Que faire? One can’t simply ditch the opera’s ritual tests of manhood.

Pamina, too, must face trials which align her with the Father and necessitate a rejection of the Mother. Urging Tamino to play his magic flute to protect them during their trial by fire and water, Pamina explains that the flute - a gift to Tamino by his mother - was in fact made by her father. The directors’ response is to turn the trials into an irrelevant/irreverent joke; the ordeals borne by Tamino and Papageno are espied by chuckling hotel staff and marionette-wielding bell-boys: just so we know who is really pulling the strings.

The playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ryan Wigglesworth rather grinds things down too; there’s plenty of stylishness and instrumental virtuosity but collectively it feels leaden at times, and the rather ponderous and portentous overture didn’t get things off to a good start. The pacing was often ineffective dramatically, though that’s not necessary Wigglesworth’s fault: how long does it take for the obsessively punctilious sommelier to pour Papagano a glass of red wine, and how long should the latter wait for a response to his piped birdcall? Too long, in both cases, here.

There’s some fine singing to paper over the cracks in the concept, though. Katharina Magiera’s Third Lady provides a warm and firm foundation for the feisty trio; Michael Kraus’s Speaker is clear and communicative. Jörg Scheider’s warm singing makes Monostasos a more sympathetic figure than is often the case. But, his ‘blacked’ face, though the consequence of his employment as stoker of the hotel’s coal furnace, is a class-related symbol that aligns him as surely with the Queen - the ‘dark force’ - as his ‘race’ might do. After all, when Sarastro intervenes during Monostasos’s attempted rape of Pamina, he attacks: “I know that your soul is as black as your face. And I would punish your black deed with this dagger had not an evil woman forged the dagger - an evil woman who nevertheless has a virtuous daughter.” Both vengeful mother and the savage ‘black slave’ are less than human: Barbe and Doucet’s attempt to break down the gendered light/dark conflict falls down once more with such oversights.

Portillo and Fomina.jpgDavid Portillo (Tamino) and Sofia Fomina (Pamina). Photo credit: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper.

As Tamino, David Portillo - swapping his stripy bedwear for a tweed jacket and breeches - sails the crest of his melodic lines with strength and his tone is true. Sofia Fomina’s Pamina initially sounded a little too ‘mature’ for my liking, but she later radiated sincerity in her duet with Papageno and when humbly beseeching Sarastro. ‘Ach ich fuhl’s’ was a bit choppy though, as rubatos, ornaments and a slight vocal wobble disrupted the line. When her suicidal thoughts are thwarted by the Three Boys, Fomina is required to costume-swap mid-aria, her gown ditched for boots and breeches, her modesty protected by white sheets held decorously in place by the Boys. Given that the quartet then dash from the stage, why couldn’t the change of attire wait? It was hardly meaningful action or in service of the music.

I admired Caroline Wettergreen’s performance as the Fairy in Fiona Shaw’s Cendrillon during last autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour, but here her Queen of the Night was less impressive - though the audience were vigorously receptive. There’s no doubt that Wettergreen can hit the high notes, and she relishes them - sometimes for too long and too often: the decision to take the final cadence of ‘O zittre nicht’ up an octave was a mistake, especially as the preceding aria had not been exactly ear-soothing. Similarly, the peaks of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ punched powerfully but the intonation elsewhere in the aria was often painfully adrift.

Björn Bürger’s Papageno is a joy - just as was his Figaro in Glyndebourne’s 2016 Il barbiere - though his natural stage exuberance is sometimes hampered by the conceptual clutter. Thank goodness for Brindley Sherratt’s wonderfully ‘human’ Sarastro: he resonated intellect, thoughtfulness and real feeling, even if the High Chef’s dignity was somewhat diminished by his glowing orange toque - which presumably was supposed to represent the sun, but which in the gloomy kitchen often resembled a pedestrian crossing light, surrounded by the street-lamp white bulbs of his kitchen underlings. Moreover, ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ was unforgivingly disrupted by, first, a shadow-play intrigue between the Queen and the exiled Monostasos, and then, the dropping of the front-curtain so that Pamina and Sarastro found themselves standing in the street outside the hotel restaurant while a noisy scene change was effected behind them.

Brindley Sherratt Sarastro.jpgBrindley Sherratt (Sarastro). Photo credit: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper.

Given the rifts in the conceptual reasoning and execution, Barbe and Doucet don’t really seem to know how to bring proceedings to a close. Puppetry becomes crudity when Papageno finally wins his Papagena and, after some vigorous humping behind the kitchen range, his female companion’s vastly inflated ‘legs’ are hoisted over the counter-top, the range door is opened and the phrase ‘a bun in the oven’ assumes a grotesque manifestation as a multitude of Papageno/as is blasted from the furnace, sent flying to a kitchen worktop where the puppets are decapitated and dance a ghastly goofing, gooning galop. So much for wedded bliss.

As for our plucky duo who have endured fire and ice, Pamina decides that she’s going to grab the flute and call the tunes, while Tamino is despatched to complete the household chores: we see him drying dishes through a transparency of a fruit-and-veg head à la Arcimboldo.

Meanwhile, the Queen and her dark knights infiltrate the wine cellar, only to be drowned by the upswelling of a sudden storm. We assume she has fallen into eternal darkness, but when Sarastro calls the enlightened together for a slap-up supper around the chef’s top table it seems that darkness has not been dispelled for the resurrected Queen is welcomed into the fold with a glass of Château Lafite.

Pamina has been admitted into the ‘temple’ for she has learned to accept, of her own free will, that the Father is superior to the Mother, and she will conform to the role required of her. The return of the Queen of the Night at this point seems to reinforce the resolution of opera in terms of the acceptance of a femininity within the male realms of wisdom and nobility as complementary to the masculine, as long as it is subordinate within the gender hierarchy.

Just how feminist is that?

Claire Seymour

Tamino - David Portillo, First Lady - Esther Dierkes, Second Lady - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Third Lady - Katharina Magiera, Papageno - Björn Bürger, Queen of the Night - Caroline Wettergreen, Monostatos - Jörg Schneider, Pamina - Sofia Fomina, Speaker - Michael Kraus, Sarastro - Brindley Sherratt, Second Priest and First Man in Armour - Thomas Atkins, First Priest and Second Man in Armour - Martin Snell, Papagena - Alison Rose, Puppeteers - Richard Booth, Mikey Brett, Ashleigh Cheadle, Jack Parker, Ben Thompson, Scarlet Wilderink, Three Boys - Daniel Todd, Simeon Wren, Felix Barry-Casademunt; Direction and Design - Barbe & Doucet, Conductor - Ryan Wigglesworth, Puppet Designer - Patrick Martel, Lighting Designer - Guy Simard, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Glyndebourne Chorus.

Glyndebourne, Thursday 18th July 2019.



[1] Stuckey, Priscilla. ‘Light Dispels Darkness: Gender, Ritual, and Society in Mozart's The Magic Flute.’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol.11, No.1, 1995: 5-39. Stuckey argues that, ‘The duality of light and darkness, therefore, becomes the fundamental gender metaphor in the drama, a metaphor that spills across the boundaries of gender in this opera to describe also the categories of class and race.’

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