Zauberflöte Lacks Mysticism and Magic

10/05/2013

 Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Julia Jones (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 7.5.2013 (CC)

Cast:;

Tamino: Andrew Staples
Pamina: Sophie Bevan
Papageno: Simon Keenlyside
Papagena: Susana Gaspar
Queen of the Night: Albina Shagimuratova
Monostatos: Alasdair Elliott
Sarastro: Matthew Rose
First Lady: Anita Watson
Second Lady: Hanna Hipp
Third Lady: Gaynor Keeble
Speaker: Sebastian Holecek
First Priest: Harry Nicoll
Second Priest: Donald Maxwell
First Armoured Man: David Butt Philip
Second Armoured Man: Jihonn Kim
First Boy: Joseph Outtrim
Second Boy: Oliber Bostridge
Third Boy: Edward Fetherstonhaugh

Production:;

Sir David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

My colleague Mark Berry has already reported on the first cast for this revival of Sir David McVicar’s staging of Mozart’s late masterpiece. Cast changes between that performance and this are many (the lesser roles, with the exception of the Three Boys, remain constant, as do Papagena and the Queen of the Night).

First, the conductor, Julia Jones, a Mozart specialist who debuted with Così in 2010 at the Royal Opera. Given that this run was bound for Sir Colin Davis, and dedicated to his memory, Jones sat in a great shadow. In the event her conducting was not that remarkable. Her speeds kept the drama moving, and yet her handling revealed little of what makes this opera special. There were corners that were far from tidy, perhaps reflecting a feeling that the orchestra was less than inspired by her.

The opera’s undercurrent of mysticism from Freemasonry (and, as Nicholas Till points out in his programme essay, “Freemasonry and the Enlightenment”, Rosicrucianism) is strong indeed in this piece; but so is the atmosphere of fairy tale wonder. Till does not expound too much on the Rosicrucian elements, a pity as an examination of the Freemason/Rosicrucian interrelationship in Mozart’s time would be fascinating. The correspondence is clear with the Rosicrucian-influenced degrees of Freemasonry; how the Rosicrucian groups then differed from the present day societies of AMORC (the most famous, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, based in San Jose, California but prevalent throughout the World), and the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (amongst others) would have been a fascinating avenue to explore. Both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism have real emphasis on ritual; Rosicrucians, certainly, aim to locate the true, cosmic self. For Zauberflöte, this idea of personal and collective elevation and enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense) is crucial, as is the setting. One could perhaps posit that the setting in Ancient Egypt is telling ; year zero of the Rosicrucian calendar is 1353 BCE, when during the reign of Akhnaten/Amenhotep IV the first Rosicrucian ceremony was ostensibly held in Ancient Egypt. Masons of course refer to the Great Architect, and it is surely not coincidence that Akhnaten was the first Pharaoh to espouse monotheism (in the form of Ra, the Sun God).

The key to a production that is true to Mozart’s concept is an invocation of the atmosphere of the Ancients through the ritualistic trials of Tamino (given arias such as “O Isis und Osiris”, this surely should be Egyptian), a vital part of any self-respecting esoteric group, meshing with the comedic exploits of Papageno and Papagena. McVicar’s staging is certainly effective at points, but holds little of real depth (and not that much of Egyptian ceremony, either). The egg yolk yellow sun of the final scene holds some glow of wisdom and victory over the night, but it is not a resounding victory. The serpent that attacks Tamino in the opera’s opening scene is here suspended on sticks, immediately bringing to mind the dragons of Chinese New Year that process through the streets of London’s Chinatown. Much of the lighting is dimly dark, but the effect is oppressive rather than mysterious.

All this, though, could be rescued by a cast of heavenly Mozartians. There were strong contributions here, but there was not really the sense of a stellar ensemble working towards a common cause. Albina Shagimuratova has toured the World’s great opera houses with the role of the Queen of the Night, and her experience shows. But not everything was in order: her “O zittre nicht” had some issues with timing, as Shagimuratova seems to take extra time for faster passages; better was her second act “Der Hölle rache kocht in meinem Herzen”.

The Tamino, British tenor Andrew Staples, was in fine, focused voice which attained a honeyed delivery for “Dies Bildnis is bezaubernd schön”. He was not a Tamino of great character, though, which meant he was overshadowed by the superb Sophie Bevan (another British principal) as Pamina, who particularly shone in “Ach, ich fühls” and whose acting was a delight throughout.

Simon Keenlyside dominated the stage as the bird catcher Papageno, comedic in aspect and stage delivery but beautifully considered in vocal terms. This is a demanding role physically, and yet his frantic runnings and jumpings about did not seem to impact at all on his breath control. His “Bei Männern” duet with Bevan was superbly judged and arguably the highlight of the evening. The flip side of the Papageno coin, Papagena, was ably taken by Portuguese soprano and Jette Parker Young Artist Susana Gaspar.

A shame the Sarastro of Matthew Rose was rather weak; to counterbalance this, the experienced Alasdair Elliott made much of the role of Monostatos. The trio of Ladies was fabulous, each carefully chosen to blend and complement perfectly; the three boys were perhaps less successful in tuning. The chorus, on this particular evening, was nicely on form.

A mixed evening, then, one that left one aware of Mozart’s genius and yet rather wishing that genius had been more fully honoured.

Colin Clarke

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