Great Singing in Opéra Bastille’s Problematical Zauberflöte

FranceFrance Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert), Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 25.3.2014 (MB)

Tamino – Pavol Breslik
First Lady – Eleonore Marguerre
Second Lady – Louise Callinan
Third Lady – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Papageno – Daniel Schmutzhard
Papagena – Regula Mühlemann
Sarastro – Franz-Josef Selig
Monostatos – François Piolino
Pamina – Julia Kleiter
Queen of the Night – Sabine Devieilhe
Speaker – Terje Stensvold
First Priest – Michael Havlicek
Second Priest – Dietmar Kerschbaum
First Armoured Man – Eric Huchet
Second Armoured Man – Wenwei Zhang
Three Boys – Soloists from the Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw

Robert Carsen (director)
Michael Devine (set designs)
Petra Reinhardt (costumes)
Martin Eidenberger (video)
Peter van Praet and Robert Carsen (lighting)


This, the 408th performance of The Magic Flute (or La Flûte enchantée) at the Opéra national de Paris, had a good number of virtues, the greatest of which was the quality of the soloists. Pavol Breslik was an ardent, honey-toned Pamino, as impressively ‘natural’ – however that much may be a case of art concealing art – an actor as a singer. He sounded and looked every inch a prince, however keen Sarastro may have been to remind us that he is more than that: ‘ein Mensch’. Julia Kleiter seemed made for him as a Pamina. She did not put a foot wrong, again as convincing dramatically as musically. And the acid test: ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ moved as it should, Mozart’s ambiguous, ambivalent chromaticism both agonising and reconciliatory. (How Beethoven and Wagner must have wished they could accomplish that, yet of course their greatness lay in good part in dealing with their coming too late to be able to do so.)

There is surely no better Sarastro treading the world’s stages today than Franz-Josef Selig. It is tempting to take for granted the ‘fit’ of his voice, his way with words, his command of musical line, and most crucially, his alchemical blend of words and music, yet one should not. All were on fine display on this occasion, though ‘display’ is quite the wrong word really, given a performance of winning humility, goodness even.

Sabine Devieilhe impressed as the Queen of the Night. There is often something that trips up performers of this role; here there was a phrase toward the end of her first aria, in which intonation suffered. It is a well-nigh impossible role, though, and elsewhere Devieilhe acquitted herself very well, the brightness as well as the accuracy of the principal notes in her second aria especially noteworthy.

Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno had no need to fear comparisons with the most accomplished portrayals. His was a touching assumption, in which once again a great deal of solid musicianship lightly underpinned dramatic conviction. Moreover, his delivery of the dialogue – in this performance, a major strength across the board – may have been the strongest I have heard, an aspect which can sometimes let down the very greatest of singers. Regula Mühlemann made for a spirited Papagena, François Piolino a quicksilver, unusually un-caricatured Monostatos, and Terje Stensvold a winningly sincere Speaker. The Three Ladies and Three Boys were all excellent too, the latter being called upon, prior to singing, to display what seemed to me to be creditable footballing as well as vocal skills. What a joy it was, though, to have so secure a reading from boy trebles.

Philippe Jordan’s conducting certainly had its moments, though the hard-driven yet sleek Overture was not one of them. (It sounded a bit like second-rate Karajan, albeit with too small an orchestra.) Tempi in general had clearly been well considered, though some seemed a little too studied in their ‘difference’; likewise the welcome flexibility afforded some numbers. ‘Bei Männern’ was taken daringly slowly, yet worked, a true feeling of wonder engendered. There were other occasions, however, when there was more than an impression of listlessness, the music floating away into the ether rather than being founded upon its bass line. Jordan’s evident desire for intimacy may or may not have been misplaced – there is a great deal of Beethoven here, as great conductors such as Böhm and Klemperer knew – but it certainly sounded misplaced in the vast Bastille theatre, where larger forces and a less precious approach would have assisted. Arguably, some of the voices, however, well sung, were on the small side too; it was difficult to resist the conclusion that this was a work, or at least an approach, better suited to the Palais Garnier. Orchestral playing considered on its own terms was generally of a high standard. Choral singing was decent rather than inspired, but there was nothing to complain about in that respect.

What of Robert Carsen’s production, first seen last year at Baden-Baden? I wish I could speak with greater enthusiasm, but cannot help but wonder whether this is now a case of a director who is doing too much. Too often a general ‘stylishness’ pervades the stage, and whatever this work, with its array of social, religious, ethical reference, may be, it has nothing to do with mere fashion. Video accomplishes little beyond its mere presence. Indeed, the forest scene, with occasional waving of branches in the wind, proves alienating in a non-productive way; what is wrong with an old-fashioned backdrop? The only occasion on which it adds something was in the huge projection of Pamina’s face, constantly changing, as Pamino sings the Portrait Aria, but even then, one is tempted to ask: so what? Fire and water are far more convincing, some of the most convincing – and indeed straightly portrayed – I have seen, likewise the lighting in general. There is a degree of messing around with the dialogue, and indeed the ordering, but nothing too grievous, and there are sections – for instance, that pertaining to Monostatos’s blackness, here certainly not a matter of skin colour – to be heard that nowadays one generally finds cut.

Then there is Carsen’s big idea, of which I had initially given up hope. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro are on the same side; indeed, the members of Sarastro’s order turn out already to be nicely paired up with women. Initially, I thought the idea merely silly, and was certainly irritated by the two ‘leaders’ kissing each other at the beginning of the second act. But it has some mileage, not least in dealing with the alleged ‘problem’ – actually it is no such thing, if one understands the narrative as progressing according to Tamino’s, and our, consciousness – of the changing portrayal of the ‘dark side’. Here there is none, and everyone – even Monostatos, somewhat wearisomely comforted and converted by Pamina in the final chorus – joins in the final rejoicing in the light. A more critical approach, though, to the implications of such unity would have been welcome. Is it not, perhaps, a dangerously totalitarian prospect? Alas, politics and, more broadly, ethical considerations are more or less entirely absent. Rather than take the easy road of redressing alleged misogyny – for the most part, it is a matter of mistaking the views of characters for those of creators – why not look critically at the work’s heteronormativity, here actually bolstered? A desire for inclusion, in itself neither objectionable nor incomprehensible, remains generalised and disturbingly free of context: liberalism in a nutshell. Ultimately, chez Carsen, style occludes rather than instantiates idea.


Mark Berry

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