Imagine a Magic Flute Without Sonority

ItalyItaly  Mozart, Die Zauberflöte in concert form:  Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin.  RIAS Kammerchor.  Conductor, René Jacobs. Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome.  21.11.2012 (JB)

Sarastro: Marcos Fink
Tamino: Topi Lehtipuu
Queen of the Night: Burcu Uyar
Pamina: Miah Persson
Papageno: Daniel Schmutzhard
Papagena: Sunhae Im
Three Ladies of the Queen: Inga Kaina, Anna Grevelius, Isabelle Druet
Monostatos: Kurt Azesberger
Three boys: Josef Krenslehner, Jakob Kritzinger, Peter Mayr, Rene Ortmann, Laurent Stepien

Can you imagine a Magic Flute without sonority?  That is what René Jacobs gave to the Rome Public.  For all I know, the Baroque instruments of the Akademie Für Alte Musik may work well with Caccini or Monteverdi.  But this Zauberflöte  sounded as though it had had its guts, its inner vital organs, ripped out.  There is indeed some tragedy in Schikaneder’s libretto and in Mozart’s music, but it is not of this order.

Maestro Jacobs is nothing if not thorough in this tragic musical surgery.  He recognises that having taken the vital organs out of the score, the animal is going to die.  His solution to this ugly problem is to get through the “operation” as swiftly as possible.  Most of the arias are taken at double the speed.  That gets them out of the operating theatre quicker but it doesn’t save their lives.  It underlines their deaths.

Not satisfied with having taken the life out of the instruments, he has appointed two singers who sound as though they have been castrated.  Topi Lehtipuu (Australian of Finnish parents) is as handsome as a peacock –tall, slender, wonderful bone structure and graceful of movement.  Though without sets or costumes, there were some well-thought out movements.  Lehtipuu’s Tamino sounded, not so much as though he was being chased by a snake, as having got left out in a tropical rain  storm all night.  Imagine Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön  -surely Mozart’s most moving tenor aria- in these circumstances.  Beautiful Topi is unable to sustain a note.  Or maybe he was encouraged down this path.  Either way,  it is decidedly not what Mozart asks for.

For all who did not have the misfortune to hear Marcos Fink, it will be impossible to imagine a Sarastro who cannot sustain a note and who has no grasp of the meaning of legato singing.  Despite the impotence of the instrumental sound, his voice frequently disappeared altogether.  Someone should have advised him that warmth and authority are Sarastro’s defining qualities.  Both were spectacularly absent.

Fortunately some of the singers were swimming counter-current in this wretchedly unhappy stream.  No, sorry: stream  gives the idea of natural movement, but this performance was  often as static as dust.

The Swedish singer, Miah Persson, is as glamorous a Pamina as you will ever find.  She is also in possession of a fine voice which delivers pleasure  in its sustained notes.  Her person (no pun intended) is petite, but her voice is not; it is gloriously expressive.  Both her arias, and especially Ach ich fül’s, es ist verschwunden, were rich and memorable.

The Turkish soprano, Burcu Uyar, was an excellent Queen of the Night.  She circumvented all the coloratura demands with panache, hitting all the high notes bang in the middle; well, most of them: she would doubtless have managed all of them if Jacobs had not given her such a ridiculous let’s-get-through-this-fast tempo for Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinen Herzen.  But it is not just her glittering, precise top: her sonorous low notes would cause an earthquake.  (The programme notes tell me she has sung Donna Anna, and I can’t wait to hear her do it.) In this remarkable equality of top and bottom registers she matches the reported impact of Josefa Hofer, Mozart’s hated sister-in-law, who created the role and whom Mozart was determined to punish.  Well, dear Mozart, Ms Uyar takes this punishment standing up to you and you wouldn’t want to meet her on a dark night.

Schikaneder not only belonged to the same Masonic Lodge as Mozart and wrote the libretto, but played the part of Papageno himself, which turned out as the composer’s finest basso-buffo role.  Daniel Schmutzhard is the right singer-actor for the role.  His diction is wonderfully clear and he has made the generous, half-witted spirit of Papageno his own.  He was perfectly matched with Sunhae Im’s sylph-like, Papagena.  That final farcical scene was a sheer delight.  And while Mr Jacobs wasn’t listening, both these singers showed they both understood well the uses of sonority.

It was a pleasure to see that the company had used  five trebles for the three boys. Two as  reserves?    But alas, as anyone with experience of a traditional church choir will tell you, unless boys’ voices have been methodically and properly trained, they easily go out of tune.  And these did.

If you were waiting for that haunting organ sound which Mozart calls for from the chorus in the second act temple scenes, you would have been disappointed.  This chorus sounded more like a wet market day.

Unsurprisingly there were mixed reactions to the performance.  I hate getting trapped in my own prejudices, so as I left the hall, I was keeping my ears flapping to catch as many comments as I could.  Most people expressed puzzlement.  They felt there was something not quite right about the performance, but were unable to put their finger on what it was.  In that, I hope I might here have been some use to them.  Hell!  There I go!  Prejudiced again!

Jack Buckley