ZURICH: Die Zauberflöte
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Die Zauberflöte

Zurich Opera

In the introductory talk immediately before the premiere performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (seen Dec. 7), Zurich Opera's head of dramaturgy emphasized the duality of the opera — imagination and reason, nature and civilization, and so forth. How strange then, that director Tatjana Gürbaca's production was an unabashed romp with no exploration of the more sombre aspects of this multi-faceted opera.

After composing Die Zauberflöte Mozart wrote the overture, which sets the tone for the whole work.  A solemn introduction is followed by a main theme full of high spirits, but treated fugally: Papageno and Sarastro combined, as it were. And it was here that the problems of this production began. During the overture we were presented with a house on a revolving platform with various people wandering around more or less aimlessly. At one door a woman solicited a passerby. Only later did we realize that the woman was Pamina and the man Monostatos. Then the opera proper started and Tamino ran out of the house for no apparent reason — no dragon in pursuit (and later no magic flute or magic bells). The Three Ladies arrived, bearded, (“because they are strong women” we were told by the dramaturge) like three Conchita Wursts. 

Every scene was played for gags. In this regard the Papageno was the worst offender. If played well, this character can be a joy, if played badly he can be extremely irritating. The lighter scenes in this opera can elicit open-hearted laughter, not the embarrassed titters that were to be heard on this occasion. While one could argue that many of the director's ideas were valid, they were relentlessly applied and lacked conviction.

On the musical side, things were significantly better. The Orchestra La Scintilla performed on a raised platform so that they and their conductor Cornelius Meister were clearly visible. More importantly this gave the orchestral timbre an immediacy of presence. Their clarity of texture was remarkable although, as so often happens with period instruments, wind and timpani predominated, somewhat at the expense of the strings, which sounded rather undernourished. The vigorous, thrusting approach of the conductor suited the presumed approach of the director, but the warm sensuality and moments of stillness so typical of Mozart at his greatest were left unrealized.

Most of the principal roles were taken by Zurich regulars. Mauro Peter's singing continues to impress. His lyric tenor is ideal for Tamino and he shaped his phrases well. Mari Eriksmoen, his Pamina, sang clearly and accurately but with little warmth of feeling. However, singing “Ach ich fühl's” while picking her way through assorted gardeners and builders on a cramped revolving stage is not conducive to capturing the essence of this desolate aria. Mozart's operas have been central to Ruben Drole's career, but he failed to articulate his sixteenth notes or to tone down his large bass-baritone to the demands of a Papageno, especially in ensemble. By contrast both the Three Ladies and the Three Boys were sung to perfection.

One has to admire anyone who can manage to sing all the notes in the Queen of the Night's two arias as accurately as soprano Sen Guo did. But she conveyed little sense of personality, let alone authority. Her nemesis, Sarastro was sung by Christof Fischesser, who has given enormous pleasure in so many Zurich productions. On this occasion he commanded respect but seemed a little inhibited and uninvolved. Shaw famously remarked that Sarastro's utterances were the only music he knew that could have issued from the mouth of God. But this was a production that undermined the gravitas of Sarastro: the immediate response to his “In diesen heilg'n Hallen” was a peal of raucous laughter from the back of the stage.

Overall this was a trying night for the audience. At curtain call there was enthusiastic acclaim for the conductor, orchestra and the Three Boys, more restrained applause for the other soloists with the addition of vociferous boos for the production team. spacer 



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