Although the production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte presently performed at the Opéra de Paris has been warmed-up several times since its première at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, it still elicits some booing. It am not a partisan of such public demonstration of dislike, but I can certainly understand why that happens. It is true that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto its hardly a masterpiece, but experience has shown that those who tried to improve it have only disgraced themselves in the enterprise. Alex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa, from the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, are responsible for what happened to be, in my experience, the most unfortunate attempt of interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberoper. Apparently, the ambiguous nature of the dichotomy “good/evil” is for them something of a novelty worthy of heavy underlining – beside the three genii and three ladies, we have also three dancers half-dressed as Sarastro and half-dressed as the Königin der Nacht… So you see, now you can un-der-stand the plot.
However, adding is something of an exception in this production – basically every element in the plot is replaced by a combination of gigantic air mattresses and video projection of texts featuring the cheapest version of pocket philosophy slogans. In other words, we have a completely white stage with some twenty people dressed as lab researchers carrying around the transparent mattresses while the words “good-evil”, “beautiful-ugly” are projected all over the place. Also, the original dialogues are often replaced by what is supposed to be psychologically insightful lines.
Let me give an example: before Pamina’s “suicide” scene, we have to wait two minutes while the lab people sweat their way along mounting a pyramid of mattresses. Because the libretto instructions are Das Theater verwandelt sich in einen kurzen Garten, I thought that the pyramid ought to be very important. Pamina had to climb on it and try not to fall to her feet while singing. In the end, she climbs down and the lab people jump like madmen on it to deflate the whole thing.
The silliness was unfortunately not confined to the visual aspects of this production. Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has a fancy for pointless acc. and rit.-effects and unpolished orchestral sound. The result was more mannered than dramatic and more unattractive than revelatory. In the undernourished overture, different sections of the orchestra rushed to follow the beat and singers were often caught short by the inappropriate tempi. As usual, the most serious victim was the Queen of the Night.
Although Erika Miklosa is still very impressive in her high staccato singing, her passagework was uncomfortable and unclear. Moreover, her voice seems a couple of sizes more modest than it used to be and her low register is left to imagination. Soprano Maria Bengtsson did not seem comfortable either as Pamina. Her basic tone is not really appealing and requires the art of phrasing to work its charm. She did pull out a sensitive and stylish Ach, ich fühl’s crowned by breathtaking mezza voce, but elsewhere she seemed either squally or curdled-toned or even shrewish or a combination of all that. American tenor Shawn Mathey was far closer to the mark as Tamino – he sang with naturalness and purity of line, offering a charming account of Dies Bildnis. Russell Braun clearly knows what the role of Papageno requires from him, but the tone too often lacks repose and/or focus and the results are sometimes rather graceless than artless. Kristinn Sigmundsson is an experienced Sarastro – I have seen him more connected to the proceedings in other occasions – but who can blame him?
I leave the endearing detail for the end: taking what is supposed to be a farewell role, José Van Dam was still an expressive and firm-toned Sprecher.