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Wednesday 17 April 2013

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH


Mozart fanatic though I am, I do find Die Zauberflöte to be quite dramatically flawed, or at least, I have never seen a production that can make the libretto seem like anything less than a silly story with a sententious yet obscure moral with beautiful music added. Compared to the musico-dramatic wonder of the Da Ponte operas, it is unconvincing and uncompelling as drama - the three principal protagonists have barely any agency (they're told to do something, someone else immediately tells them that they can't, they wait while other stuff gets done to them, then they're mysteriously allowed to do the original action when the gods decide they can), the denouement of the story, the two trials, is totally anticlimactic and essentially meaningless, and the plot is so episodic that the pacing can seem curiously clumsy compared to the perfection of Mozart's previous three efforts. The masonic symbolism never seems interesting enough to warrant it being the full focus of a production, and the "philosophical/masonic/temple" music is so alien to Mozart's particular artistic genius - it's the duets of friendship and love, the arias of fear, loss and rage, that is, the points of genuine human emotion rather than the idealised, abstracted moralising, that truly fire his imagination to produce music that is justly loved and held up alongside his very greatest achievements. At least the constant misogyny of the Masons is thwarted by Mozart in making Pamina play the essential role in Tamino's triumph over adversity, thereby rescuing the otherwise jejune message of "brotherhood" by including the other half of the human race as well.

Like all of Mozart's late operas the music occupies a world of its own that is totally distinct from the other operas. Figaro is all subtlety, delicate brilliance and bristling energy, Don Giovanni searing intensity and opulent lushness, Cosi fan Tutte clarity, Mediterranean warmth and symmetry. A Singspiel on acid, Die Zauberflöte is wildly eclectic, providing the widest and least muddied colour palette, painted in primary colours with firm outlines. There's a transparency and calm that surpasses even Cosi - a simplicity of effect and a paring down to essentials, with emotions exquisitely delineated in the music, and usually wholly lacking the ultra complex equivocalness of the other three operas mentioned. Characters say what they mean! The eclecticism is by no means random and is strongly reflective of the very different personalities that are being portrayed: Mozart's unerring talent for aural characterisation taken to the nth degree, and indeed each major role is so precisely and individually drawn that they almost don't inhabit the same landscape as each other. Part of what is touching about the piece is seeing these very different people interacting and overcoming their differences of temperament and outlook.

David McVicar's production makes return and though I still like it, it's starting to look a bit old - the sets are a little crumpled and tatty, and everything creaks, hums and cracks when it moves, to a distracting degree. Still, it's a good traditional production which contains striking images, can be very funny, and is reverent and respectful of the piece. And I still love the ridiculously cute children amongst Monostatos' minions and then at the end in the Papageno/Papagena scene which also serve to show the similarities in these two character's music. For some reason, writing about this production seems superfluous at this stage as it's so famous and has been on DVD/youtube for so long.

Charles Castronovo took a little while to warm up as Tamino, but soon revealed an excellent lyric tenor with good legato and an extremely dark colouring (we're talking Kaufmann-esque), very unusual in a voice of this fach, and quite changed from what I remembered of his Ferrando. For me, this heroic manful timbre doesn't feel right for Tamino, the gentlest and most youthful of all Mozart's tenor roles, but this was nonetheless excellent singing. Unfortunately his German is only OK and acting a little bit generalised. These shortcomings were made especially obvious by Christopher Maltman's beautifully sung and acted Papageno, with his flawless German, expressive vocal shading in both the sung and spoken parts, and total identification with the role. (Though it must be admitted that Tamino is a much less rounded and more idealised character).

Ekaterina Siurina is also glorious as Pamina, with a radiantly beautiful top and floated pianissimos that make an audience melt. Vocally then a marvel, though I wonder if she has a little too much temperament for Pamina - she would be a completely luxury Susanna or a magical Rosenkavalier Sophie, but most casting directors would probably think the voice is too "full" for these parts, despite the fact that the colour and timbre is absolutely ideal (in the Popp mould). Wonderful to hear though.

The Queen of the Night is surely the most popular role in all of opera and though it is by no means the hardest coloratura role in the repertoire, the pressure to perform is immense. Albina Shagimuratova I first saw doing Donna Anna at Glyndebourne and she was magnificent there. The voice is extremely fine - gleaming in the top but with a lyric warmth and excellent agility for a voice this large, but on this first night she was not quite in her stride - her Act I aria "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" was a bit reticent and the coloratura slightly sluggish, and "Der Hölle Rache" featured dicey intonation in the passages that everyone is waiting for and high notes that were extremely covered. Still, the rest of her singing was very, very good indeed and it's clear that she is in theory perfect for this role and I can well imagine that this was merely first night nerves. Acting wise she is good and makes a decent stab at being scary.

Brindley Sherratt is a very fine Sarastro, not quite the basso profundo required for the role, but extremely cultivated and beautifully sung and his German is very good. The rest of the cast is very serviceable with Sebastian Holocek a commendable Speaker, and the two armoured men of David Butt Philip and Jihoon Kim excellent too. Julia Jones was OK in the pit, though the ROH brass were always too loud, and it wasn't until the final half hour that the orchestra were producing really beautiful things.

So all in all a well sung production, even if there's a slight lack of sparkle from pit or revival direction.

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