Opera News, May 2007
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, Zürich, 17 February 2007
Die Zauberflöte
Nikolaus Harnoncourt returned to Zurich to conduct a new Zauberflöte staging (seen February 17), some twenty years after his classic stage collaboration on this opera with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Martin Kusej, the controversial director of Harnoncourt's 2005 Salzburg Don Giovanni sojourn, was his new Zurich Flute partner. This Flute had all references to the Enlightenment, Egypt and Freemasonry radically erased, as if designer Rolf Glittenberg had decided to rebuild the mise-en-scène as a subterranean labyrinth, set on a revolving platform like a concrete bunker, protected by steel doors. Behind this yawned a nightly abyss, where evacuated citizens moved about in their modern department-store clothes (designed by Heidi Hackl).

The performers seemed traumatized by their erotic experiences. The spectacle started with Pamina and Tamino posing in their wedding garb during the overture for a photo shoot, at the end of which — just as they were about to kiss — rough arms crashed through the screen behind them, drawing them into the blackness of the night. This was evidently a flashback, transporting them to the events of the "folle journée" preceding their wedding. When the curtain opened, we saw Tamino cringing on the floor of a snake-pit, surrounded by dozens of creatures like him, fighting against the invasion of glittering plastic snakes. These were stopped by three girly, high-heeled Ladies, wearing sunglasses but obviously blind — they barely avoided crashing into one another as they jealously grappled for the youth "so beautiful as I have never seen before."

For the encounter with Papageno, we moved to a different part of the labyrinth, where the birdcatcher lived, encaged in his volière (without birds). Tamino conversed with Papageno through the glass panes, their mirror-like movements reflecting their identical nature. When the Three Ladies reappeared, they sealed Papageno's mouth by kissing him.

Further strange happenings included the three huge, half-naked black hoodlums, obviously bodyguards of Monostatos, who emerged from a bathtub in a King Kong mask. The three Genii entered with their kindergarten playmates, all tenderly caressing black ravens; later on, they were shown pulling up dead chickens in a dirty lumber-room. For her Act II aria, the Queen of the Night emerged from a refrigerator — into which she retreated after knocking off her Fs. "How was the fire and water trial handled?" you might ask. For this the stage floor was sprinkled with petrol, then Pamina lit up a match and both proceeded through the chamber to reappear for their water test, shown on video. Boarding a car, they were then lowered down a riverbed and submerged in the waves, from which they escaped by swimming to the surface. In the end, they were carried in, strapped on their beds, their bodies wretchedly injured but their longing for each other so strong that they finally managed to set the seal on their marriage with the kiss that they were denied just three-and-a-half hours before.

Alas, all that generations of opera fans have loved about Die Zauberflöte seems to have evaporated in this production. The opera's youthful freshness and spontaneity, its warm humanity and moral fibre, its endearing follies and absurdities — and almost all of its genuine humour — rest here in the scenes between Papageno (twenty-six-year-old Swiss newcomer Ruben Drole, a carefree child of nature with a beefy baritone) and Papagena (the cunning and capricious Eva Liebau). All the other artists onstage seemed to be inmates of a subterrenean psychotic clinic — including the smooth Sarastro of Matti Salminen, the brilliant Elena Mosuc's Queen of the Night, whose coloratura glittered like ice-crystals (small wonder after her banishment to a refrigerator) and the lovely, deeply wounded Pamina of Julia Kleiter, with her firmly molded, radiantly beautiful line. The Tamino of Jonas Kaufmann — who stepped in at the last moment for the ailing Christoph Strehl — seemed deeply worried but sounded fabulously firm and almost steely. Rudolf Schasching brought forth alien monster sounds as Monostatos. The Ernst Raffelsberger-trained chorus contributed valiantly, as did the augmented forces of the Zurich Sängerknaben.

Thank goodness Harnoncourt's reading of the score and the playing of the Zurich opera orchestra seemed unaffected by the harrowing experiences the performers on the stage were enduring. Harnoncourt, who has undoubtedly reconsidered since his last Zauberflöte here, now prefers slower tempos throughout. He puts stronger emphasis on the shaping of individual lines, which gives them luminous transparency and lends the performance a chamber-like touch. Ensembles seem to materialize out of gossamer — it is at these moments that the "magic" of Mozart's title starts to work.

Those who missed the show in Zurich can decide whether this type of Musiktheater insanity is their cup of tea when the DVD of the production is released, shortly after its broadcast via German, Austrian and Swiss TV.

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