Iván Fischer’s Conception of Die Zauberflöte: A Quixotic Mishmash of Ideas.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute): Actors and soloists, Á la cARTe Choir, Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer (director and conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.5.2016. (JPr)

The cast of BFO’s The Magic Flute (c) Belinda Lawley

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte


Tamino: Bernard Richter
Papageno: Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Pamina: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Queen of the Night: Mandy Fredrich
Sarastro: Krisztián Cser
Three Ladies (Eleonore Marguerre, Olivia Vermeulen & Barbara Kozelj)
Papagena: Norma Nahoun
Monostatos: Rodolphe Briand
Three Boys: Members of the Hungarian State Opera Children’s Choir
Gustavo Quaresma Ramos (First Armed Man and Second Priest)
Peter Harvey (Speaker of the Temple, Second Armed Man and First Priest)
Actors: Bart van der Schaaf, Joanna Croll, Felicity Davidson, Jonathan Oliver, Laura Rees and Scott Brooksbank)

(Originally co-produced by Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Palace of Arts Budapest)

Margit Balla (set designer, illustrator)
Györgyi Szakács (costume designer)
Ágnes Kuthy (silhouette designer)
Tamás Bányai (lighting designer)

The 1791 Singspiel, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) in two acts was the culmination of Mozart’s increasing involvement with Emanuel Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe that since 1789 had been the resident company at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. Mozart was a close friend of one of the singer-composers in the troupe, Benedikt Schack (the first Tamino), and had contributed to the compositions of the troupe, which were often collaboratively written. A year earlier in 1790 Mozart participated in Schikaneder’s collaborative opera Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosopher’s Stone), including the duet (‘Nun liebes Weibchen’ K592a) and perhaps other passages. Like Zauberflöte, Der Stein der Weisen was a fairy-tale opera and a sort of precursor since it employed much the same cast in similar roles. Die Zauberflöte is noted for its prominent Masonic elements; both Schikaneder (the first Papageno) and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera depicts the triumph of reason over despotism and is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and can be regarded as an allegory propounding enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night is the dangerous form of obscurantism, whilst her antagonist, Sarastro is the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight. The libretto also contains a racial stereotype in the form of Monostatos (who makes unwelcome advances to Pamina mainly because he is a Moor i.e. black) and equally dreadful misogyny (all women are subservient to men).

My opinion has always been that operas like this are of their time and are what they are. We do not alter other works of art such as paintings and most literature if they contain something that offends our sensibilities today, so why do this to opera? Isn’t it probably better to confront these issues rather than sometimes simply expunge all references to Monostatos’s colour from the work? I remember David McVicar’s 2003 production at Covent Garden where Monostatos is just a periwigged powdered fop, which is light-years from Mozart’s intentions. In Mozart’s opera there are references to women as arrogant, idle, chatterers and liars amongst other derogatory remarks and there are repeated references to ‘be a man’, yet these pass the ‘censor’ untouched. This being the case it suggests that misogyny is not as bad as racism, which must be a discussion left for another time.

This lengthy preamble is only to remind any readers that there is a more serious background to Die Zauberflöte and it is not just a pantomime about the eternal struggle between good and evil as Iván Fischer, this performance’s director and conductor, would want us to believe. His ‘goal’ for his ‘staged concert’ was to present something that had an ‘organic unity where music and theatre express the same feeling in every moment, carefully shifting the balance so that sometimes music, sometimes theatre gets the upper hand … Despite its ingenious complexity, The Magic Flute, is a fairy tale and it speaks to our inner child.’ I doubt there is any mainstream or online classical music reviewer who nurtures his ‘inner child’ more than I do but this Magic Flute did not work for me.

I have enjoyed many past performances by the marvellous Budapest Festival Orchestra under Fischer, their inspirational founder and music director. I have no intention of kicking them when they are down – I understand back in Hungary they are in the midst of a funding crisis. Goodness knows how much the extravaganza they presented at the Festival Hall cost but I suggest, respectfully, that the budget could have been better spent. This is one occasion why I will not comment on the evening in microscopic detail as I am sure I am in a minority about my reaction to this Magic Flute but I found it a quixotic mishmash of ideas. I have railed for decades about the use of music stands in concert versions of operas but by the end of this ‘staged concert’ I was wishing the singers were just standing still behind some and singing.

I don’t have the words to do justice to what we saw; believe me, you just needed to be there – or not, depending on your tastes. English National Ballet put on something called My First Ballet where the classics are recreated for young children. Indeed, this Magic Flute would have been fine if it had been aimed at children and their families and presented as a matinee at the weekend to introduce opera to a new audience. I should have guessed what we were in for when Iván Fischer came to the podium of the ad hoc orchestra pit, which was taking up the front few rows of the stalls, and went through the pretence of asking for volunteers to speak the dialogue in English! He said they would get into costume during the Overture but of course this was all nonsense – though some around me seemed to believe him – and there were already actors listed in the programme.

The costumes (by Györgyi Szakács) and initial imagery (by Margit Balla) on a big screen were straight out of an amalgam of Christmas pantomime and an infant’s picture book. The cartoon version of Tamino (with a disembodied voice singing offstage) encountered three silhouetted Ladies singing onstage. Soon we had doubles for Tamino and Papageno speaking the dialogue and swopping or otherwise interacting with characters singing or otherwise standing around as the pages of the child’s book turned behind them, illustrating more of the story and showing the translation. Scott Brooksbank’s bald-headed speaking Tamino was feyer than his singing counterpart and Bart van der Schaaf was in full broad Jim Broadbent-mode as Papageno. Throughout there were some in jokes and occasional Hungarian words spoken as well as interactions with members of the orchestra and the conductor.

If you accepted Fischer’s Konzept then this wasn’t too bad, I suppose, during the seventy-minute Act I but he lost the plot during the longer Act II. This began with an empty pit and music being played from behind the screen with what we were seeing reverting mostly to shadow play (silhouettes by Ágnes Kuthy). Now the dialogue was often just spoken with the singers ‘dumb’ on stage. Monostatos in his PVC bondage gear and with small black smudges on his face was performed in Act I by the singer speaking the dialogue but now alternated with a much thinner double. Despite a suitably comic ‘old’ Papagena I began to think it was all a little too clever for its own good. I laughed very rarely but loudest when the singing Papageno couldn’t rouse the speaking one from his slumbers and had to continue the dialogue with Papagena-as-old-woman in German!

I forgot to add that the orchestra returned in dribs and drabs to the pit throughout Act II only to later leave again for Iván Fischer to hand over the baton to someone else. The big reveal was that at the end the screen lifted to reveal Fischer and the full orchestra onstage helping to unite Tamino and Pamina. There were lots of flowers being passed around and handshaking as everyone involved came together in a show of true brotherly love as Mozart probably intended.

The redeeming feature of this event was the singing and accompaniment from the always-reliable Budapest Festival Orchestra. The outstanding singing was by the charming Hanno Müller-Brachmann as Papageno, as fine as anyone I have seen in this role since Hermann Prey. Tamino was warmly and cleanly sung by Bernard Richter even if it was a rather tightly produced sound. The Three Ladies (Eleonore Marguerre, Olivia Vermeulen and Barbara Kozelj) were an engaging trio. Rodolphe Briand seemed to be channelling his inner Mime as the lascivious Monostatos. Peter Harvey’s bass voice gave impressive gravitas to his three small roles as the Speaker of the Temple, Second Armed Man and First Priest. Mandy Fredrich hit all the right notes as a ‘wicked witch’ Queen of the Night but I wasn’t so sure about the rest of her voice. As Pamina, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller projected as well as anyone during the evening and sang a very emotionally affecting ‘Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden’. Krisztián Cser has a resonant bass voice but it lost volume in the more cavernous depths required by his role but he portrayed a more-than-usually avuncular Sarastro. Norma Nahoun was a typically funny Papagena and did what little Mozart gave her very well indeed.

The Three Boys were from the Hungarian State Opera Children’s Choir and they did not let the side down and the Á la cARTe Choir made an incisive contribution when required. Iván Fischer seemed to enjoy himself – as so he should since it was all his idea it seems – and conducted a very vibrant and fleet-footed performance that did not seek any new revelations or much profundity in the work.

Jim Pritchard

For more about classical events at the Southbank visit http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/.

For more about the Budapest Festival Orchestra and their current tour visit http://www.bfz.hu/.


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