Glyndebourne’s New Die Zauberflöte Misfires, Despite an Excellent Cast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2019 [3] – Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus of the Glyndebourne Festival, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, 21.7.2019. (RB)

Sofia Fomina, Martin Snell, Brindley Sherratt, Michael Kraus, Thomas Atkins
and chorus (c) Bill Cooper


Direction and Design – Barbe & Doucet
Puppet designer and Puppet coach – Patrick Martel
Lighting designer – Guy Simard


Tamino – David Portillo
Pamina – Sofia Fomina
Papageno – Björn Bürger
Papagena – Alison Rose
Queen of the Night – Caroline Wettergreen
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
Monostatos – Jörg Schneider
Speaker – Michael Kraus
First Lady – Esther Dierkes
Second Lady – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Third Lady – Katharina Magiera
Second Priest and First Man in Armour – Thomas Atkins
First Priest and Second Man in Armour – Martin Snell
Three Boys – Freddie Jemison, Aman De Silva, Stephan Dyakonov

This production is Glyndebourne’s seventh staging of Die Zauberflöte and their first new production of the work in more than a decade. The celebrated Franco-Canadian director-designer team of Barbe and Doucet are making their British and Glyndebourne debuts with this production.

Barbe and Doucet have resisted staging Mozart’s final operatic masterpiece up until now because they regard the libretto as sexist and racist. In staging the opera they wanted to tackle these problems head on rather than skating round them. The setting for the production is the Hotel Sacher in Vienna and the work opens with a sleepwalking Tamino walking past chambermaids who are carrying huge piles of plates. Mozart’s fairy tale world takes shape in Tamino’s mind and the plates are transformed into a dragon (the design put me in mind of some of the creatures from the early years of BBC TV’s Doctor Who). The characters in the opera assume roles within the hotel: the Queen of the Night is the proprietor; Sarastro is a celebrity chef with an orange toque which lights up from time to time, while his Masonic acolytes all wear white toques; the three ladies are chambermaids and the three boys are bellboys. Monostatos tends to a coal burner and it is this which gives him his blackened face thereby avoiding any racist references.

Barbe and Doucet have produced huge black and white drawings depicting rooms in the hotel and these form a backdrop to the action. There were some startling and highly original effects in the opening part of the production. For example, pieces of bedding were turned into birds and a crate of vegetables came to life. There were also some memorable effects in the later scenes. The two armoured men were formed out of ovens from the kitchen, again reflecting the imagination of the sleepwalker. There was also a great scene where Patrick Martel’s puppeteers manipulated puppets of Tamino and Papageno while the real characters mimicked them with their own jerky movements.

There is no doubt that some of the effects were highly imaginative but, as the opera progressed, they became increasingly silly, distracting and tasteless. At various points, cast members danced with mannequins and this proved an irritant and distraction – for instance in the Act I duet between Pamina and Papageno. The marching of suffragettes across the stage seemed pointless given there is nothing to which you can link them in the opera. Tamino and Pamina’s trial was reduced to her cooking an elaborate dish and him doing the washing up afterwards (obviously a new man). In Papageno and Papagena’s final duet, puppet babies were fired out of the oven, human- cannonball style, during the references to them having children. One can argue that the libretto for Die Zauberflöte is fairly silly anyway and this all adds to the fun. However, there is so much more to the opera than this and these effects turned it into a vacuous, politically correct piece of nonsense.

The cast for the most part did an excellent job with their respective roles. The two standout performances were Caroline Wettergreen as the Queen of the Night and Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro. Wettergreen made the Queen of the Night more sympathetic than the imperious figure we see in many productions, particularly during her first aria. The coloratura zipped along in ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ and the aria had a white-hot elemental fury. There were a few very minor intonation problems and the coloratura could have been a little more even, although this is a quibble. The second aria was even better and the coloratura leaps and top Fs were deservedly greeted with ecstatic applause from the audience. Brindley Sherratt’s sonorous voice filled the hall in Sarastro’s arias. He was rock solid at the bottom of the vocal register and there was rich nobility and luminosity to his singing.

David Portillo is a very good actor; he struck a nice balance between the romantic and heroic elements of Tamino while joining in the fun and high jinks. His rendition of ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ sounded a little tentative and I would have welcomed a more seamless lyrical flow. His singing was much better in subsequent scenes and he proved an adept ensemble performer. Sofia Fomina brought a feisty vulnerability to the role of Pamina. She sang ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ with a rich lyricism and the decorative lines were shaped beautifully. Björn Bürger’s Papageno was a bouncy, fun loving character and he brought impeccable comic timing to the role. He sang Mozart’s folksy arias with a directness and simplicity which could not help but win the audience over. Alison Rose was a delight in the role of Papagena and she sang the final duet with unfettered exuberance.

I was particularly impressed with the handling of the ensemble numbers in this production. There was excellent coordination and balance between the three ladies while the three boys captured the whimsy of Mozart’s score perfectly. The trio between Tamino, Pamina and Sarastro was exceptionally well handled with the three voices blending perfectly and all the singers producing very polished and perfectly shaped musical lines. Notwithstanding the distractions from Barbe and Doucet, the duet between Pamina and Papageno was a delight although some of the embroidered musical lines from Fomina could have been a little cleaner.

Ryan Wigglesworth and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided an excellent accompaniment throughout. The period instrument sound ensured that the textures remained clean and transparent while the phrasing was immaculate. The pacing of the material was well judged although some of the tempi were a little slow.

Overall, there was much to enjoy in this production and the cast, chorus and orchestra are to be commended for their strong performances. I have seen a number of excellent productions by Barbe and Doucet but I fear this is not one of them and one can only hope that it has a limited shelf life.

Robert Beattie

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