Trifling with Die Zauberflöte

ItalyItaly  Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Teatro dell’Opera, Rome, 31.3.2012 (JB)

David McVicar’s 2003 ROH staging rehearsed in Rome by Dan Dooner
Conductor: Erik Nielsen
Sets and costumes: John Macfarlane
Lighting: Paule Constable
Choreographer: Leah Hausman
Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani

Sarastro: Peter Lobert
Tamino: Juan Francisco Gatell
Queen of the Night: Audrey Luna
The Queen’s Three Attendants: Sarah-Jane Brandon, Romina Tomasoni, Nadezda Karyazine
Pamina:  Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Papageno:  Markus Werba
Three boys in the service of Tamino:  Flavia Scarlatti, Maria Elena Pepi and Emanuela Marzi
Papagena:  Sibylla Duffe
Monostatos: Kurt Azesberger
Matteo Evangelisti is the First Flute of the Rome Opera Orchestra

English trifle is an unlimited crowd-pleaser and guests will often talk of nothing else in the weeks following your party. Tradition requires that you make it a day or two before the party, leaving you free for all the other chores on the day itself. It’s also a good idea to break with tradition in one or two aspects of the preparation – like making a génoise (which in our days of electric mixers calls for more management than skill), a brilliant substitute for the more stodgy Victoria sponge. Be generous with the stewed fruit, go for one that has a slightly tart taste (plums and apricots work brilliantly) and be stingy with the sugar. Sally Clark says to use as little sugar as you dare. Make the custard in the proper traditional way with egg yolks, and disdain custard powder. Use a vanilla pod from Madagascar and avoid vomit-making vanilla flavouring.

But proceed with a sense of balance. Everybody knows that too much good taste gets you into the worst bad taste. The Italians have their own edition of this dessert, called zuppa inglese, which translates as English soup. An apt name, too: the concoction is usually swamped in headache-making cheap booze, packets of unsold supermarket bourbon biscuits substitute the génoise, the fruit element is scarce or totally absent and every teaspoon tastes as though it contains a kilo of sugar. How do they do it?

Die Zauberflöte is inescapably a trifle. With all the above possible pitfalls and delights. The recipe which Emanuel Schikaneder and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left (they belonged to the same Masonic Lodge and were out to save that movement) is in the hands of a very capable trifler in David McVicar (in a revival of his 2003 Covent Garden staging). McVicar capitalizes on the many fun theatrical opportunities without falling into any of the pitfalls. His deft skill is much aided with John Macfarlane’s admirable sets and costumes – comic in the way of the pantomime without exaggeration or vulgarity. Choreographer Leah Hausman, too, makes an excellent contribution to the outstanding rhythmical neatness of Mozart’s score.

Neatness was also a plus with Erik Nielsen’s conducting. The Rome Opera Orchestra had been reduced to the right Mozart size and aside from some scratchy mishaps on the violins, they delivered well. The magic flute was exactly that in Matteo Evangelisti’s beautiful playing.

Tamino’s trials in the second act can very quickly become a trial for the audience. The secret is in the pacing. This does not mean a speeding up of Mozart’s notes. But they are nevertheless notes which must clearly point forward. If you set a metronome against Otto Klemperer’s performance you will see that he takes the music slower. But it doesn’t sound  slower. That is because there is an overriding sense of direction in the phrasing. Erik Nielsen failed us on this.  And the trial for the audience’s patience reigned down. Or should that be – checked in?

The minor role of Monastatos (not a black man in this production) can make great effect both musically and theatrically. But Kurt Azesberger was miscast in terms of both acting and singing. He was the only weak link in a strong – very strong – cast. In contrast, Sibylla Duffe made the most of the thankless role of Papagena without being too coquettish about it.

The Queen’s three ladies were a sheer delight in every note they sang both as individual voices  (Sarah-Jane Brandon, Romina Tomasoni and Nadezda Karyazina) and as an ensemble. They sounded thoroughly involved in every note of their roles, which must be difficult to believe in.  But these great ladies strained no credibility. Never has their music sounded so sublime.

There is no real tradition of training treble voices in Italy, so the three boys were sung by three fine girls – Flavia Scarlatti, Maria Elena Pepi and Emanuela Marzi. All three were excellent in voice and movement. McVicar’s idea of introducing them to us in a chariot slowly flying across the sky-scape was charming.

The Rome Opera was obliged to send one Queen away. The part was written for Mozart’s hated sister-in-law, Josefa Hofer, whom the composer was hell-bent on punishing as much as possible. There’s Austrian humour for you! Audrey Luna, who sang in the performance I attended, would have shocked the pants off the composer with her dazzling accuracy of rhythm and intonation. Such secure virtuosity in the face of outrageous difficulty is rare indeed. Like other Americans, Audrey Luna has a faultless technique, but also a thrilling dramatic involvement in her delivery of the role.

Emanuel Schikaneder (librettist) played the part of Papageno himself in the original production. He was an acclaimed actor. It is clear that the role is written for an actor who can sing, rather than a singer who can act. Markus Werba filled both roles perfectly, relishing Mozart’s charming melodies and only once slipping over into slapstick in an otherwise matchless performance.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller has a glorious, expressive voice and both her singing and acting are convincingly girlish, without any of the irritations that can sometimes accompany that portrayal: the perfect Pamina.

Peter Lopert has the appropriate stature, voice and stage presence for Sarastro: sonorous, rich and authoritative. Even his spoken words ring with musicality.

But I have saved the best till last. It would be difficult to find a finer Tamino on today’s opera scene. Juan Francisco Gatell is slight of build but outstandingly handsome with the grace of movement of a ballerino; a golden, perfectly projected voice and a stage presence to fill Wembley Stadium. His whole bearing is stunningly princely. This is a tenor who combines the delivery and musicianship of Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus.  And we shall hear him again in Rome’s next production, Barbiere di Siviglia where he downgrades from prince to count. No doubt that he will meet that challenge with great aplomb, too.

Jack Buckley