Musically Impressive Zauberflöte Let Down by Comic Shenanigans

GermanyGermany Mozart: Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Saxon State Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Dresden / Stefan Klingele (conductor), Semperoper, Dresden, 20.2.2014 (SRT)

Die Zauberflote, Semperoper Dresden, Credit Matthias Creutziger
Die Zauberflote, Semperoper Dresden, Credit Matthias Creutziger

Sarastro – Michael Eder
Tamino – Rainer Trost
Pamina – Carolina Ullrich
Papageno – Christoph Pohl
Papagena – Romy Petrick
Queen of the Night – Christina Poulitsi
Speaker – Matthias Henneberg
Monostatos – Gerald Hupach

Production, designs and costumes – Achim Freyer
Lighting – Gerd Budschigk

In the foyer of the Semperoper are 17 lunettes which pay tribute to some of the dramatic masterpieces of the architect’s age. Die Zauberflöte is one of them (it also features heavily in the decoration of Vienna’s roughly contemporary Staatsoper, as what contemporaries saw as the greatest German opera). It was a treat to hear it done in the magnificent acoustic of the Semperoper, where everything came across in crystal clarity and a perfect sense of proportion. More often than not, seeing was better than hearing, though. I didn’t take to Achim Freyer’s Toytown production which was crammed into the front third of the stage and so felt cramped and claustrophobic much of the time. The gaudy primary colours that he adopted for the sets and costumes were not unattractive, but his biggest mistake was to overplay the comic elements in a way that misread the mood of the work as a whole. I found Papageno’s overlong shenanigans with a revolving door rather tiresome, but most unforgivable of all was his decision to fill the stage with priests performing slapstick during the trial scene so that the beautifully still music of the flute’s solo was ruined by the high jinks on stage. Then, perversely, he kept the stage completely empty of people for the final chorus. I was also left clueless as to why the flute itself was invisible (i.e. didn’t exist); no doubt there was a good reason for this, but it looked as though they’d simply forgotten the prop!

The singing was mixed, but the good was very good, led by an excellent Tamino in Rainer Trost.  He sang with honeyed tone and rock-solid confidence, overturning many of the doubts I’d had about him recently, and confirming that when he is on form he can stand comparison with the very finest tenors in this repertoire. He was partnered by a beautifully sweet-voiced Pamina in Carolina Ullrich, and their duet before the trial scene was a highlight. Despite the annoying physicality of his part, I enjoyed Christoph Pohl’s lusty Papageno and the delicate Papagena of RomyPetrick. Christina Poulitsi made heavy weather of the Queen’s first aria, but found her form in exhilarating fashion for the second, marrying command of the tessitura with an unusual opulence of voice that caught the resonance of the acoustic thrillingly. The trios of ladies and of boys were very good, as were the pairs of Priests and Armed Men. Michael Eder made an unconvincing Sarastro, though. His voice had plenty of colour, but he lacked the security of pitch the role requires, and he wobbled off the note dangerously when the line dipped below the stave. Matthias Henneberg was an unsteady Speaker, and Gerald Hupach made for a Monostatos that was almost inaudible at times.

You can forgive a lot, however, when the orchestra in the pit is the Staatskapelle Dresden. The majesty and command of their playing is remarkable to behold, and it exudes an aristocratic quality that puts most other opera orchestras to shame. To allow two examples to stand for many, I loved the choir of low wind instruments that accompanied Sarastro’s O Isis und Osiris, full of refined dignity and a dark brown sound that makes the hair stand on end, while the strings had a pinched, emaciated quality during Ach, ich fühl’s, that painted Pamina’s sorrow even more effectively than the words did.  The singing of the Staatsoper Chorus was similarly a knockout, but then they were founded by Weber himself in 1817, so they’ve had a lot of practice. They sang with quality, soul and razor-sharp articulation, raising a tingle even when singing offstage. Stefan Klingele’sconducting kept things going at a nippy pace, and the spoken dialogue was kept to a necessary minimum.

The combination of orchestra and singers in Semper’s miraculous acoustic made for a night of music I will remember for a very long time, even if I’ll happily forget Freyer’s wilful production.

Simon Thompson