Fine singing but desultory conducting in Die Zauberflöte at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper

GermanyGermany Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Giulio Cilona (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 11.1.2024. (MB)

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Die Zauberflöte in 2008 © Bettina Stöss

Director – Günter Krämer
Revival director – Gerlinde Pelkowski
Designs – Andreas Reinhardt
Chorus director – Thomas Richter

Sarastro – Tobias Kehrer
Tamino – Kieran Carrel
Speaker – Padraic Rowan
First Priest – Kyle Miller
Second Priest – Jörg Schörner
Queen of the Night – Hye-Young Moon
Pamina – Elena Tsallagova
First Lady – Flurina Stucki
Second Lady – Arianna Manganello
Third Lady – Davia Bouley
Papagena – Meechot Marrero
Papageno – Philipp Jekal
Monostatos – Burkhard Ulrich
First Armoured Man – Patrick Cook
Second Armoured Man – Youngkwang Oh
Three Boys – Soloists from the Children’s Choir of the Deutsche Oper

Premiered on 24 September 1991, six days short of 200 years from the work’s first performance, Günther Krämer’s The Magic Flute has done sterling service for the Deutsche Oper. The company would have had more than a year’s worth, if it performed this single work daily without a break, the performance total having reached 379. The work is no stranger to longstanding productions: Achim Freyer’s truly magical staging (I saw it twice in Salzburg) did the rounds for a good few years; David McVicar’s Covent Garden production has been seen regularly (review here), though not so regularly as that, for more than two decades now. Closer to home, August Everding’s tedious offering for the Berlin Staatsoper has been around since 1994 and clocked up 300 in 2021, though it has now been joined in repertoire by a more innovative staging from Yuval Sharon (review here). I have no idea what holds the record; it would not surprise me if there had been something at some point in Vienna, or indeed at another German theatre, small or large, in repertoire for a few more decades, though that is pure speculation. Krämer must surely, though, be a contender in a work whose particular German circumstances seem to conspire towards endless revival: popular here, there, and everywhere ever since 1791; written in the vernacular; rightly or wrongly (to my mind, at least questionably), considered by many to be suitable for children; thereby presenting something approaching box-office certainty for something that is not La bohème, Carmen, or La traviata.

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Die Zauberflöte in 2008 © Bettina Stöss

It was the first time I had seen it, so I cannot claim any of the attachment some veterans will doubtless feel for it. It did its job well enough, I thought, though by now it will surely lie at some remove from either the director’s ‘intention’ or what it might have been today. It does not look tired in the way some productions, desperately needing to be put out of their (and our) misery do; Andreas Reinhardt’s designs, clear, colourful, and not without mystery, continue to fulfil their brief. It is difficult at this remove to discern a particular standpoint, let alone concept; perhaps there never was one, though I suspect there may have been elements of that once. In particular, I suspect a degree of social criticism would once have come across stronger, not least with respect to the treatment of Pamina and thus women more broadly. Her uncertainty and something approaching momentary horror in the closing scene, realising an apparent lack of agency and, just perhaps, resolving to restore that in the future were intriguing. Concerning racial politics, I wonder whether the portrayal of Monostatos and other slaves in what appeared to be native American garb once made a point that has now been lost (at least for me). It was deeply uncomfortable to view in 2024, and not in an obviously productive way. I wonder whether something might yet be done about that by a future revival director, should there be one, whilst bearing in mind the lack of rehearsal such revivals are likely to be allocated.

Ultimately more detrimental to the dramatic flow were the cuts in dialogue. There is no need to be a purist about that: very few productions use Schikaneder complete, and not only for reasons of sex and gender. But the precise nature of the cuts sometimes made motivation and even straightforward action unclear. Many will have known what to fill in, but many in such an audience also will not. No one need be bored in a largely German-speaking audience by a little more pertinent spoken content.

The other major problem was Giulio Cilona’s conducting. We all, of course, have different conceptions of the work and how it should ‘go’. Not everyone responds as I do to Klemperer, Böhm, or Furtwängler; nor do I expect everyone to do so. In any case, the question is largely irrelevant since none of them is with us, and no one conducts Mozart quite like any of them anymore. (Having heard Colin Davis several times in this and other Mozart operas, I have surely had my share of good fortune for a while, perhaps even for a lifetime.) Disconnection between pit and stage can happen to anyone, though preferably less frequently than here, even on what was probably minimal rehearsal. But the lack of sense that anything might matter, taking too much at an all-purpose allegro and indifferent mezzo piano, ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ a merciful exception, led to a desultory orchestral performance all round. I initially assumed the string section must have been very small. However, though I could not see the rest of the section, I could see four double basses, so it could not have been that small. The angel of death appeared to be on strike for what should be the terrifying scene with the Two Armoured Men. An old production needs all the more to be brought to life by comprehending, sympathetic conducting. Such was not the case here.

There was, fortunately, nothing to disappoint in the vocal performances — again bearing in mind the realities of an ultimate repertoire piece in a repertoire house. Kieran Carrel’s Tamino was well sung, personable, very much in recognisable character. Likewise our Papageno, Philipp Jekal’s performance bringing together with skill lightly worn a number of different theatrical and emotional worlds. Tobias Kehrer’s Sarastro made the most of his low notes in particular, alert to deeper meaning without sacrificing essential or at least apparent ‘simplicity’. Hye-Young Moon’s Queen of the Night implored and sought vengeance with impressive accuracy and sparkle. Burkhard Ulrich’s Monostatos was properly sung, no mere caricature: particularly important given the character’s problematical portrayal. Performances from the Three Ladies and Three Boys all deserve favourable mention. For me, though, the stand-out vocal performance was Elena Tsallagova’s as Pamina: clean of line, happy of musical and dramatic blend, and with true emotional depth that saw no need to draw attention to itself. Though I cannot help but feel it might be time to draw the final curtain on Krämer’s production, a few more performances such as Tsallagova’s might help delay the inevitable.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment