Garsington’s Die Zauberflöte is More Rewarding Vocally than Theatrically

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus & Orchestra / Christian Curnyn (conductor), Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 2.6.2018. (CR)

Garsington Opera’s Die Zauberflöte (c) Johan Persson

Cast included:

Pamina – Louise Alder
Tamino – Benjamin Hulett
Papageno – Jonathan McGovern
Sarastro – James Creswell
Queen of the Night – Sen Guo
First Lady – Katherine Crompton
Second Lady – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Third Lady – Katie Stevenson
Monostatos – Adrian Thompson
Speaker – Richard Burkhard
Papagena – Lara Marie Müller
Three Boys – Lucas Rebato, Freddie Jemison & Dionysios Sevastakis
Elders – Adam Temple-Smith and James Ioelu


Director & Designer – Netia Jones
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan

Except for a premiere, Garsington’s 2018 season features the last operatic achievements of three of the genre’s greatest exponents. In her new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Netia Jones takes a critical stance on the opera’s supposed Enlightenment theme, in re-casting Sarastro’s temple of wisdom as a modern day masonic lodge, upholding a set of values every much as oppressive as those of the Queen of the Night and her coterie. Admittedly Sarastro’s peculiar band of freemasons look somewhat more amusingly hapless and awkward as a group of middle-aged men dressed in ill-fitting suits and white socks. But comedy is largely down-played here, with Papageno’s larking around providing the only real relief. But even then, during his first aria, he is seen butchering a rabbit (oddly, rather than a bird) which he has lately killed, indicating that he is already drawn into the prevailing practice of violent coercion, as even Sarastro’s realm is too, with multiple CCTV cameras placed over the apparently rational façade of his lodge, overlooking a neat parterre. Pamina wields a gun on at least one occasion, and Jones seems to subscribe to the anti-Enlightenment argument (espoused by Theodor Adorno amongst others) that this intellectual movement of order and reason was an ultimately anti-humane project leading to experimentation and subjugation. Hence Tamino is seen at the opening of the opera in danger not from a snake, but from being electrolysed in a metal tub, the victim of senseless scientific procedure.

Act II enters the inner sanctum of the lodge with another comic touch as the assembled masons help themselves to the food and wine available at the side of the hall, making a wry comment upon the activities of the audience during the immediately preceding ninety-minute interval. But the TV screens relaying the images picked up by the CCTV cameras outside reinforce the notion of this as an embattled institution, meting out its reactionary values upon those from the outside world it can ensnare, like Tamino and Pamina.

Well executed as all this is, what could have been an insightful re-interpretation of the opera ends up as a rather limp, sentimental climax in which Tamino and Pamina’s triumph heralds the reconciliation between the Sarastro and the Queen of the Night – evinced here merely by their hugging each other – and the pairing off of the freemasons and their female servants, as they renounce their masonic servitude. There is no indication of what supposedly greater values Tamino and Pamina have divined outside of those actually articulated in the drama by the supposedly flawed Sarastro and his order such as to bring about this Damascene conversion on the part of everyone else that they were unable to achieve before (except the Inquisition-like, silent figure of the Queen of the Night’s henchman the Red Priest, and Sarastro’s Speaker, who remain in thrall to their own orders of darkness and reaction). Jones’s targets are artificial aunt sallies rather than acute social critique, as freemasons now recognise the validity of female lodges, and the proposition of the Catholic Church as the underpinning of the Queen of the Night’s dubious outlook and practice looks untenable during this present time of the increasingly reasonable and tolerant papacy of Pope Francis. Furthermore, no explanation is forthcoming as to how Mozart and many others like him saw themselves as good members of their enlightened societies whilst espousing both freemasonry and Catholicism, all at the same time.

Christian Curnyn’s interpretation of the score with the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus colluded with this sceptical, even cynical, view of the work in tending to course through it fairly routinely without much lingering over any details, and avoiding vibrato or any sense of awe and mysticism (as in the chorus ‘O Isis und Osiris’ for example). Certainly that aided the cause of dramatic movement, but Mozart’s score – divided into numbers between spoken dialogue – needs no special advocacy or re-interpretation on that point, and paradoxically it was the extended, more symphonically-structured finales of both Acts – and the second in particular – which became choppy and episodic.

On the whole, though, the performance supported excellent contributions from the cast. Benjamin Hulett remains a nobly heroic Tamino, despite the adversity he is required to overcome, and which this production would have us believe is a double challenge on account of Sarastro’s specious claim to enlightenment. Similarly, Louise Alder’s Pamina is radiant and effusive to the extent that she is permitted, and one feels that she would have benefitted from the chance to range more freely and deliberately over the melismas of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ than she was given here (pace the programme note, is not the G minor key of this aria sufficient to establish cogently some sort of deeper psychological and emotional relation with her mother, the Queen of the Night, given directly related keys of G minor/B flat major and D minor respectively for the latter’s two arias, instead of having to create an artificial connection by slightly speeding up the coloratura of Pamina’s aria?).

For all that the Queen of the Night looks more like Queen Victoria moping in interminable mourning here, Sen Guo was musically commanding and accurate in the role’s celebrated vocal displays. James Creswell also makes more impact in vocal terms than in appearance, undistinguished as he is from his fellow freemasons. Jonathan McGovern’s Papageno is perhaps more authoritative than this figure of a charming rogue warrants, providing more gravitas even than Creswell; as a result, he seemingly draws more attention to the character and his own development, rather than to his, Tamino, and Pamina’s trials with institutional control and authority at large, as would appear to be this production’s preoccupation.

Adrian Thompson gives a rather broad, relaxed performance as Monostatos, largely devoid of menace or threat, which is curious given that this is one figure who could usefully be co-opted as a convincing aspect of Sarastro’s intimidating order. The Three Boys (from Trinity Boys Choir) and the Three Ladies are each well blended as a group, and without the capacity to create clever visual effects in the Wormsley Estate’s auditorium with its open stage, the Boys’ elegantly skating around the stage on their first appearances neatly conveys something of their ethereal nature. Despite such felicities, and an initially thought-provoking idea, this Magic Flute is more rewarding vocally than theatrically.

Curtis Rogers

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