Theatre within the theatre is the setting for Yuval Sharon’s Staatsoper Berlin Die Zauberflöte

GermanyGermany Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Anna Milukova), Staatskapelle Berlin / Julien Salemkour (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 28.11.2019. (MB)

Staatsoper Berlin’s Die Zauberflöte (c) Monika Rittershaus

Director – Yuval Sharon
Set designs – Mimi Lien, Marc Löhrer
Costumes – Walter Van Beriendonck
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Video – Hannah Wasileski
Sound design – Markus Böhm

Sarastro – René Pape
Tamino – Julian Prégardien
Pamina – Serena Sáenz
Papageno – Florian Teichtmeister
Papagena – Victoria Randem
Queen of the Night – Albina Shagimuratova
Speaker, Second Priest – David Oštrek
Monostatos – Florian Hoffmann
First Lady – Adriane Queiroz
Second Lady – Natalia Skrycka
Third Lady – Constance Heller
First Armoured Man – Jun-Sang Han
Second Armoured Man – Frederic Jost
First Priest – Andrés Moreno Garcia
Three Boys – Members of the Tölz Boys’ Choir

As operatic hits go, The Magic Flute takes some beating; it does even so far as Mozart is concerned. Unquestionably Mozart’s greatest popular success as composer — it is difficult not to sentimentalise or at least to dramatise and say ‘too late’ — it saw twenty performances in its first month alone. Soon almost every German city would have staged the work, usually in German but even in Italian translation (Giovanni De Gamerra, Mozart’s librettist for Lucio Silla) as Il flauto magico, for theatres and cities where that suited prevailing tastes. It had reached as far as St Petersburg by 1797, only six years after its premiere; Berlin in 1794, not actually here at the Linden house, but at the nearby Royal National Theatre on the Gendarmenmarkt (predecessor to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus or, as it stands today, Konzerthaus). If ever there were a Viennese work, it is surely this, but it is above all a work for the world — and Berlin takes just pride in its particular tradition. Schinkel’s celebrated 1816 set designs for the Court Opera — today’s State Opera—live on, reconstructed in August Everding’s 1994 production: loved by many, though theatrically inert when I saw it ten years ago. Since then, it has continued in repertoire, reappearing most seasons, but was earlier this year joined by a companion version from Yuval Sharon.

The question of ultimate agency is, I think, an important one in this opera. Who, ultimately is running the show? In part, that relates to the ludicrous claim, never quite killed off, that the libretto was not actually the work of Emanuel Schickaneder, but actually of the actor (First Slave at the premiere), writer, explorer, and later Dublin Professor of Mineralogy, Carl Ludwig Giesecke. (As with similarly absurd ‘controversies’ concerning the authorship of Shakespeare plays, there is not a little snobbery at work there, fascinating character though Giesecke may be.) A thesis entirely without external warrant — for most of us, internal too — of an incoherent wrench in plot direction, so that initially ‘good’ forces become ‘evil’ and so on has, for certain fertile imaginations, become connected with a change in authorship. That Mozart knew nothing of any of this is, apparently, neither here nor there.  Beyond that, however, questions remain. If change of standpoint there be, a change relating to Tamino’s and our enlightenment — Enlightenment too? — then how is that effected? Who are the Three Boys — note that they only sing — what are their powers, and who, if anyone, has sent them? What is the foundation of Sarastro’s and others’ authority, and what lies beyond it? I could go on, but you will get the idea. The point in this context is that children are pulling the strings: in a welcome nod to Heinrich von Kleist — and to Salzburg — we are in a marionette theatre, one that necessarily looks back, but is more of today than a rose-tinted remembrance of 1816.

As the curtain rises, we see the outline of a theatre within our theatre. Characters emerge on strings, seemingly coming to life — like Schikaneder’s libretto, some might say — with Mozart’s music. Sometimes they are suspended in mid-air, sometimes on the floor; sometimes they even break free of their strings (although that nagging question of agency and authority does not seem quite to be resolved there; perhaps it cannot or should not be). Their appearance, however, seems more calculated, not unreasonably, to appeal to today’s children than to older people’s idea of today’s or even yesterday’s children. There is something of the comic book to them, especially to our heroes Tamino and Pamina — although rightly, in a cosmos as varied as this, there is considerable costume variation. I cannot say that I was wild about some of the rewriting and reordering but should one approach this as an opera for children — I am far from convinced one should, yet German tradition looms large — there is warrant enough for that. The lack of trials of fire and water, however, seems to me a great pity. Tamino and Pamina retreating into a kitchen (of marriage, presumably) to make a light evening meal does not seem calculated to appeal to a considerable proportion of children, fraught questions of gender notwithstanding, let alone to those of us who might appreciate a little light undercutting, at least, of the opera’s patriarchy and heteronormativity. Some effort, though, is made at least to address problems of race, Monastatos, a black robotic toy, has his treatment discussed by children, as the dialogue veers off-piste.

There is nevertheless an apt and — I suspect, for the target audience, winning — sense of theatrical wonder, even when, as on this evening, the stage machinery broke down part way through the second act, requiring an extra pause to put things right. Revealing the children, whose recorded voices we have heard throughout intoning the dialogue at the close, pulling the strings as the theatre is cut down to size is doubtless necessary, but it deflates any sense of triumph, of enlightenment, indeed of anything much but children somewhat irritatingly running around, at the close. I cannot help but wonder whether they would have been better shown at the start. Moreover, if I am honest, their voices, in place of those a little more theatrically experienced, did become wearing after a while.

Musically, the picture was somewhat mixed. Conductor Julien Salemkour seemed strangely concerned to keep the orchestra down, to limit it as much as possible to mere ‘accompaniment’. Although it was clearly small in size — I could not see how small from where I was seated — an unfounded fear of overwhelming the singers seemed paramount. Either that, or unaccountably, he did not much like the sound of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which, insofar as one was permitted to hear it, sounded warm and cultivated as ever. It was a pity, since, a couple of cases aside, Salemkour adopted sensible tempi and mostly — there are doubtless particular problems with a staging such as this — kept pit and stage together. If only Daniel Barenboim would finally conduct this opera here.

I enjoyed most of the singing, though I wondered whether some had been understandably inhibited by demands of aerial acrobatics. There was one peculiar exception, though, with which I had better to deal first. The cast list declared that Florian Teichtmeister was assuming the role of Papageno ‘in the tradition of Emanuel Schikaneder,’ as ‘an actor’. Well, yes and no. Schikaneder was an actor; he was a good many things, including composer — and singer. Unless one were to take the view — surely a slander on many singers — that singers are incapable of acting, it seems a decidedly peculiar virtue, in an opera house, to insist that a non-singer play the part. Teichtmeister did his best; he can certainly act. Ensembles in particular were uncomfortable, more through the miking this apparently necessitated than through any difficulty with pitch. This was surely an idea that should have been firmly knocked on the head. Otherwise, Julian Prégardien and Serena Sáenz made for a lovely central couple, both performances palpably sincere and beautifully sung. That René Pape’s Sarastro is a well-known quantity should not lead one to take it for granted; evidently, no one did. The role still suits him perfectly — and perfectly is how he responded to its requirements. Albina Shagimuratova’s Queen of the Night sounded somewhat distant on account of her placing onstage — or rather, above stage — but emerged as bright and precise as anyone has right to expect. If smaller roles made less impact than often they do, I think that was similarly more for stage than for vocal reasons.

A welcome alternative, then, to Mahlerian tradition as Schlamperei? Yes, I think so, albeit with reservations. Sharon’s production certainly stands worlds away from what by 2009 had already become essentially a non-production, singers were left to fend for themselves in front of ‘beloved’ sets. I was grateful not only for the alternative as such but for the thoughts it provoked. If nevertheless I felt that it could have gone further dramatically and conceptually and that technical complications came a little too close to becoming the point, perhaps I just need to see it again. If the choice were this or Everding, which I understand will continue to be the case, I should have no hesitation. Ambition may sometimes exceed achievement, but that is surely the right way around and leaves room for the production to develop: ‘tradition’ in the truest sense.

Mark Berry

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