A surreal spin on Die Zauberflöte at Prague’s Estates Theatre

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Members of The Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir, National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra / Jaroslav Kyzlink (conductor). Národní Divadlo, Estates Theater, Prague, 2.12.2021. (RP)

Národní Divadlo’s Die Zauberflöte © Hana Smejkalová

Director – Vladimír Morávek
Sets – Miroslav Huptych, Martin Ondruš
Costumes – Tomáš Kypta
Chorus master – Jan Bubák
Motion cooperation – Leona Qaša Kvasnicová
Dramaturgy – Beno Blachut

Tamino – Petr Nekoranec
Pamina – Marie Fajtová
Queen of the Night – Lucie Kaňková
Sarastro – Jiří Sulženko
Papageno – Miloš Horák
First Lady – Lívia Obručník Vénosová
Second Lady – Jana Horáková Levicová
Third Lady – Kateřina Jalovcová
Papagena – Zuzana Kopřivová
Monostatos – Ondřej Koplík
Three Genies – Marie Šimůnková, Sára Jelinková, Amálie Koppová
Mozart – Ondřej Mataj
Acrobats – Long Vehicle Circus

The first performance in Prague of Die Zauberflöte was on 25 October 1792, just over a year after its premiere in Vienna. Prague audiences had a special affinity for Mozart’s music, and he reciprocated by saying ‘my Praguers understand me’. Mozart would visit the city five times, the last in August 1791 for the premiere of La clemenza di Tito, marking the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. In December of the same year, several thousand of Mozart’s admirers gathered in Prague’s St. Nicholas Church to mourn his passing.

Vladimír Morávek’s 2015 staging is quite traditional when it comes to characterizations and shorn of some of the kitsch that is de rigueur in productions the world over. There are no green feathers for Papageno and Papagena but, have no fear, there are still charming animals and reptiles that frolic about the stage. Morávek does, however, have Ondřej Mataj as Mozart on stage, not only observing the action but repeating the spoken dialogue in Czech.

The richly detailed costumes evoke the eighteenth century and, all things considered, are rather understated, The Queen of the Night’s headdress of black feathers and a silvery crescent moon is the most grand. The robes of Sarastro and the priests are embossed with metallic decorations that would have been at home in Bayreuth a half century ago.

What sets this production spinning in entirely new directions are the sets by Miroslav Huptych and Martin Ondruš which celebrate the surreal with visual references to artists ranging from the medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch to Max Ernst, the twentieth-century pioneer of the Dada movement. Morávek and his design team clearly are of the mind that nothing succeeds like excess: the production is a visual feast so complex that it demands a lexicon to make sense of it all.

Is it necessary? Perhaps not, as Mozart’s music seems to exist on a separate plane from the production, and Morávek is careful never to let the visuals overwhelm the singers. Arias and ensembles are sung on a relatively bare stage generally devoid of distractions, but when the chorus enters, the sky’s the limit: sparks shoot from trumpets and acrobats create a carnival-like atmosphere.

Národní Divadlo’s Die Zauberflöte © Hana Smejkalová

The musical values of this performance, however, trumped the production. Jaroslav Kyzlink led the orchestra in a brisk and stylish account of the overture. The orchestra was not submerged in the pit but on the same level as the seats in the parterre. Nonetheless, Kyzlink maintained an excellent balance between orchestra and singers, while offering musical textures that were rich and vibrant but gossamer thin.

One of the strengths of the National Theatre is the depth of talent in the company. It was luck of the draw, but the cast for this performance was near ideal both physically and vocally.

Petr Nekoranec was a dashing Tamino with a particularly beautiful, burnished tenor. The 29-year-old tenor is undoubtably a rising star: he has won major competitions and participated in prestigious programs for young artists in New York and Munich. In no way did he outshine the rest of the cast, but one sensed that we were hearing someone special at the start of his career.

Soprano Marie Fajtová was enchanting as Pamina, whose innocence made her ill-prepared to be a pawn in her parents’ feud. Fajtová’s pure soprano, coupled with her sense of line and seamless legato, made for some very special musical moments.

Baritone Miloš Horák is quite tall, which was exploited for comic effect by a puff of hair on his head. He acted with a natural ease that made his Papageno a pure delight. Vocally, it would be hard to top him. Zuzana Kopřivová’s Papagena was pert and sassy. The lusty pair perfectly captured the sensuality that Mozart created in the music he composed for two of his most human and endearing creations.

Lucie Kaňková was a deliciously evil and elegant Queen of the Night, tossing off Mozart’s fiendish runs with pinpoint accuracy and crowning each of her arias with remarkably clear high notes. Jiří Sulženko’s bass is not as dark and cavernous as one usually associates with the role of Sarastro, but his commanding stage presence more than compensated for that.

A performance at the Estates Theatre spoils an audience. The intimate size, although it seats far more than it did in Mozart’s day, is most congenial to the voice, and the audience can actually see the singers’ facial expressions. Morávek’s production exceeded anything that Mozart could possibly have imagined, but musically this performance might just have been all that he could have hoped for.

Rick Perdian

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