Köpplinger’s child-friendly Die Zauberflöte returns opera to Dresden’s Semperoper

GermanyGermany Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Dresden State Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Dresden / Christoph Gedschold (conductor). Filmed (directed by Tilo Krause) at the Semperoper Dresden on 31.3.2021 and streamed on 5.4.2021. (JPr)

Klaus Florian Vogt (Tamino) and Nikola Hillebrand (Queen of the Night)

Staging – Josef E. Köpplinger
Co-staging – Maximilian Berling
Set design & Video – Walter Vogelweider
Costume design – Dagmar Morell
Lighting design – Fabio Antoci
Choreography – Ricarda Regina Ludigkeit
Choirmaster – André Kellinghaus
Dramaturgy – Johann Casimir Eule

Sarastro – René Pape
Queen of the Night – Nikola Hillebrand
Pamina – Evelin Novak
Tamino – Klaus Florian Vogt
Papageno – Sebastian Wartig
First Lady – Menna Cazel
Second Lady – Anna Kudriashova-Stepanets
Third Lady – Michal Doron
Monostatos – Aaron Pegram
Speaker – Alexandros Stavrakakis
Papagena – Julia Muzychenko
First Priest – Doğukan Kuran
Second Priest – Gerald Hupach
First Armed Man – Jürgen Müller
Second Armed Man – Lawson Anderson
Three Boys – Ludwig Haenchen, Anton Kempe, Errel Rodzinka (boy sopranos of the Dresden Kreuzchor)
The Young Tamino – Emilian Antoci

This was the first opera performance by Semperoper Dresden after several months of lockdown and Josef E. Köpplinger’s new Die Zauberflöte was also the last one before their doors shut last November. Mozart’s Singspiele is presented as a coming-of-age story and we see a young Tamino in denim jacket and trainers on a darken stage at the start during the overture: when the curtains close at the end of the opera he is there with a ‘flute’ and the medallion we have seen presented to Pamina. So everything else – including the Masonic ritual – is from the boy’s overactive imagination and emphasises the fairy tale aspects of Zauberflöte.

Both Tamino and Pamina are in their own ways rebellious teenagers with Tamino seeming rather naïve to begin with and easily manipulated by the Queen of the Night. Despite the path to true love being a rocky one – quite apposite because of the imaginative landscape videography from Walter Vogelweider we frequently see – literally love blossoms for them as roses grow and it seems absolutely right that when Sarastro seeks to nominate Tamino as his successor – as Hans Sachs recognises Walther von Stolzing is the future in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger – he goes off hand-in-hand to an indeterminate future with Pamina as they reject the male-dominated society.

Evelin Novak (Pamina), René Pape (Sarastro) & Klaus Florian Vogt (Tamino)

Die Zauberflöte was the culmination of Mozart’s increasing involvement with Emanuel Schikaneder’s theatrical troupe which since 1789 had been the resident company at Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden. Mozart was a close friend of a singer-composer in the troupe, Benedikt Schack (who eventually was the first Tamino), and they often worked collaboratively. In 1790, Mozart was involved in Schikaneder’s opera Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosopher’s Stone) and just like Zauberflöte it was also a fairy tale opera, and almost its precursor since it employed much the same cast in similar roles. Zauberflöte – as Mozart intended – features Masons because both Schikaneder and the composer were lodge brothers. The opera shows the triumph of reason over despotism and is influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and can be regarded as an allegory propounding enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night is the dangerous form of liberalism, whilst her antagonist Sarastro is the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and free-thinking insight.

Unfortunately, the libretto also contains a racial stereotype in the form of Monostatos (who is a Moor and black and makes unwelcome advances to Pamina) and some equally dreadful misogyny with all women regarded as subservient to men. (Although Mozart provides full choruses in both acts that include female voices, it must be remembered the solemn choruses are for men alone.) Köpplinger – of Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater – downplays the racial and misogynistic elements in his essentially child-friendly Zauberflöte; Monostatos is just a black-hearted villain with a cyberpunk look to him and the pink-haired(!) Pamina – in her colourful anime cosplay outfit – proves to be quite feisty. Köpplinger’s version is only a few minutes over two hours so much of Mozart’s original has been lost. It was created by adhering to coronavirus safety measures, involving social distancing and a few masks, and unfortunately this is something we will have to get used to for the foreseeable future in theatres and opera houses.

There is so much eclectic imagery right from the start. There are some shenanigans with blue and yellow – the most popular colour in this Zauberflöte – ropes culminating in a tug-of-war between figures entirely in black (who will reappear from time to time), and there has been a sun and a moon followed by an eclipse. At the back we see a blueish barren landscape in which a solitary garish yellow tree is shown growing. When chased across the stage the ropes suggest snakes and it is now the grown-up Tamino who will face off against a long yellowish serpent. The Three Ladies in multi-coloured wigs and carrying rifles vanquish it before sprinkling a prostrate Tamino with something (fairy dust?). The feathered Papageno flies in on a fantastical mechanical bird that will eventually – to Tamino’s astonishment – lay an egg. Papageno (in stripey shirt, yellow again!) faints after his boastful heroics and the leaves on the three fall to leave just a single one. As Tamino looks at Pamina’s portrait there is a shilouette of her on the screen at the back. Though the Queen of the Night has a glittery skull cap and no horns she still reminded me of Maleficient from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

The Three Boys have extravagant white wigs and are colour-coded in red, green and blue and enter with a wheel, wing and some balloons and will be later seen with other memories of childhoods long ago. Sarastro’s temple is signified by strips of neon lighting and the lowering words Vernunft Natur Weisheit (Reason Nature Wisdom) with the emphasis on Natur and the priesthood will be seen to be more formally suited and booted with (initially white) cloaks. There is the suggestion of a castle tower whilst in the second act there is the illuminated outline of a cage and the priests will enter with white globes. As Act I draws to a close Tamino gets a flute which lights up and there are comical animals straight from the stage musical The Lion King. A red feather is shown gaining in importance (for some reason) though this may have something to do with the legend of the Firebird and at the conclusion of the act the young Tamino will be seen sitting on the prompt box and eating an apple.

And so it continues through Act II to huge Armed Men each manipulated by three puppeteers; for the ordeals of fire and water the tree burns and crumbles and then we see a tsunami; Papageno and Papagena’s eight large, coloured eggs raise a laugh; and there is a sunrise for the final scene. Sarastro sings ‘The rays of the sun chase night away; the hypocrite’s surreptitious power is utterly destroyed!’ yet offers the Queen of the Night a reconciliatory hand and although she ignores it, she is still on stage with everyone at the end.

Christoph Gedschold sounded as if he favoured fairly brisk tempi, and since any longueurs had been excised his account had freshness, great verve and lucid textures, and he encouraged focused playing from the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Sebastian Wartig was an engaging, charismatic Papageno with plenty of wit and presence and a clear vibrant baritone. Obviously, his character’s more comic moments really needed an audience. Evelin Novak brought wilfulness and strength to Pamina and revealed a bright, expressive voice and her ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ – believing her love for Tamino was unreciprocated – was earnest, passionate and anguished. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, was sung by Nikola Hillebrand who looked suitably dramatic though sounded less so. The high notes in ‘O zittre nicht’ were not given their full value though she was somewhat more persuasive in the Queen’s Act II aria, ‘Der Hölle Rache’, where those same stratospheric notes sounded better supported, even though it was still rather shrill. Julia Muzychenko was an absolutely delightful Papagena and her ‘Pa… pa… pa…’ duet with Wartig’s Papageno was irresistible and full of charm. Aaron Pegram’s whipcracking Monostatos was deceitful, threatening and firmly sung. The Three Ladies were a cohesive and amusing ensemble though the three boy sopranos of the Dresden Kreuzchor were a little underpowered and this was entirely understandable in the circumstances. All the minor roles were solidly cast – most notable was Alexandros Stavrakakis’s deep bass as the Speaker – though they only got limited opportunities.

René Pape brought a wealth of experience to his paternalistic Sarastro, he was imposing, stentorian, and with the remarkable low-register heft this character demands, especially for ‘O Isis und Osiris’. Klaus Florian Vogt made a rare mid-career return to Tamino with this performance and concentrated on wide-eyed innocence. As he scampered off with Pamina at the end I am not sure whether Köpplinger believes Tamino has learnt anything – apart from about falling in love – with all he has gone through. ‘Das Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ showed Vogt’s pure choirboy-ish tenor with its bleached tone to best effect and flowed beautifully and expressively. Vogt sang throughout with Mozartian grace, but his homogeneous tenor occasionally sounded a touch dry and a little too bland.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Semperoper Dresden click here.

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