Royal, Durlovski, Mühlemann; Breslik, Nagy, van Dam, Ivashchenko; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle.
Production: Carsen. Berlin Philharmoniker/ EuroArts BPH 130011 (2 DVDs) or BPH 130012 (Blu-ray), 163 mins. (opera), 43 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Director Robert Carsen, for this production from Baden-Baden, presents Die Zauberflöte as a physical manifestation of community and empathy. Carsen's focal point is the gathering of the masked and robed priests at the start of Act II. In Mozart's opera, these are the men of the chorus, but when they reveal themselves here they turn out to include not only the women of the chorus but the principal singers as well. Some of the priests' spoken lines are taken by Magdalena Kožená, getting into the community spirit herself by taking the role of Second Lady, and José van Dam, all but retired, who takes the cameo role of the Speaker. Even the fearsome Queen of the Night is a candidate for inclusion and enlightenment; Carsen throughout the opera attempts to maintain the Queen, Sarastro and Pamina as a functioning family unit. The whole group is united by a series of three successive hand gestures, and everyone who makes it through the initiation earns his or her own flute in the finale. The Three Boys are the figures of empathy. Not only do they wear the temple robes when they assist with the initiation; they are also dressed in Tamino's white suit when they assist him, in Papageno's youth-hostel knapsack and shorts when they intervene in his suicide attempt, and even in Pamina's white shirtwaist dress when they intervene in hers.
As in the very best Flute productions, Michael Levine's set design, like Mozart's music, gives the illusion of being very simple. A grassy field extends out around the orchestra pit. (The cast lolls on the grass, peering into the pit, while listening to the overture; the magic bells and flute are offered up right out of the pit.) A large projection screen adds forest scenes. But this is not the whole story. The screen lifts for Act II. Areas of dirt and ancient graves become the primary playing area. Papagena first appears out of a coffin, a rotting corpse. Her skeletal hand breaks off in Papageno's when he takes it. Few Flute designs have so appropriately captured the sudden turn taken by libretto and score in Act II. The trials of water and fire are deftly handled, with video projected directly onto the white-clad chorus members.
This production marked the first appearance of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Baden-Baden Festival. Some of conductor Simon Rattle's interpretation is touched by historic performance practice (very brisk andante tempos for the March of the Priests and the opening of the Act II finale, many cadenzas in the arias), and some of it is his attempt to put his own stamp on the music (picky echo effects in the middle of the overture, sudden slowdowns in the aria for Monostatos, a composed triple cadenza for the Three Ladies, sudden accelerandos at the end of the ensembles). All of it sits uneasily on this modern-instrument orchestra, which plays brilliantly in its own platinum, hyper-virtuoso way.
Michael Nagy's perfect Papageno embodies Carsen's vision of humanity. Kate Royal is an unusually strong presence, acting and singing, as Pamina, and Ana Durlovski's Queen, though young, has a more mature and grounded voice than we often hear. Pavol Breslik and Dimitry Ivashchenko, the Tamino and Sarastro, are a little less fully into Carsen's world, but this is not a production in which the listener thinks about individual singers very often.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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