Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte’

In my fourth post on the Berlin Staatsoper’s 1994 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, I should probably start by saying that there is nothing new to write about the staging, but the fact is that this is not true. Spielleiterinen Katharina Lang and Cornelia Sandow have done a good job in letting the Ensemble singers bring their own personalities to August Everding’s original plan and the show has never seemed fresher to my eyes as this evening. Wolfram-Maria Märtig too is a new name to me – and he too seemed determined to give the Magic Flute some refreshing: the Staatskapelle Berlin showed a light, precise sound, scarce in vibrato and soft on singers on stage. I can see the conductor’s keenness on elegance, giving the orchestra time to sculpt Mozartian phrasing I absolute clarity. I can also see the way he seemed to have the text in mind, trying to stress the variations of atmosphere in the libretto – I just don’t understand why it has been done at the expense of natural rhythmical flow and dynamic variety. The result was often crafty but rather unconvincing and short in expression, the equivalent of producing a perfect plastic rose and trying to persuade a seasoned florist to sell it instead of natural flowers. As it was, tempi were usually on the slow side, with many artificial breathing pauses and ralentando effects that tested unnecessarily his soloists. The only instance of fast pace was the true andante adopted for Pamina’s aria, extremely well judged and an example of how better the performance could have been if Mozart could speak for himself unaided more often today.

Anna Prohaska’s Pamina has the advantage of a Irmgard Seefried-like naturalness built rather by verbal acuity, clear diction, rhythmic alertness, good taste, directness of expression and sense of style than by tonal variety or extraordinary vocal quality. Some awkward passages – the ending of her duet with Papageno for instance – sounded unusually nimble and musicianly, but the role is still a bit heavy for her. Pamina’s “suicide attempt” scene took her to her limits, even if she did not produce any ugly sound even then. She is an animated actress, but still needs to learn how to move in a less angular and unnatural way, as she presently does. Anna Siminska was the main victim of the conductor’s ponderousness, which robbed the Queen of the Níght’s arias of any impact or élan. The soprano proved to be a trouper, taking profit of the circumstances to make something of the text, but she could not produce the necessary excitement by herself. I have often wondered why mastery of Mozartian style and the ability of singing with honest technique and naturalness are more often than not incompatible qualities for tenors in this repertoire. This evening, Stephan Rügamer showed that he knows how this music should be sung, but his manipulation of basic tonal quality (especially the always increasing nasality of his vocal production) makes the results rather an acquired taste. Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, is spontaneity itself as Papageno, a commendable performance. Jan Martiník’s Sarastro has more than a splash of the young Franz-Josef Selig: the tone is noble and clean in a very German way, the low register is easy and spacious and he tackles Mozartian lines with poise and feeling. Among the small roles, Raimund Nolte was a strong Sprecher, Anna Lapkovskaja a fruity-toned Third Lady and Michael Smallwood an unusually pleasant Monostatos.


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Karl Marx probably did not have the Berliner Philharmoniker in mind when he said that history repeats itself first as tragedy than as farce, but Simon Rattle’s series of remakes of Karajan’s festival opera recordings with glamorous casts puts the trajectory of the famous German orchestra in perspective and makes one wonder about the British conductor’s contribution to its prestigious history.

One would not call Rattle a Mozart conductor, although his live recording of Così Fan Tutte speaks in his favor in this repertoire – but it seems that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a milestone in the career of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s most important conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado. A good friend of mine would say that, if a conductor is not able to conduct a solid performance of this opera, he (or she) is not really apt for German repertoire.

I have heard that Rattle’s Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden have not received positive reviews – and this has been seen as a good example of how one should look forward for his recently announced resignation. As a matter of fact, if one compares this evening’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s discography, this is probably the less coherent and most problematic of all. Some will point out that Karajan’s Berlin recording is far from exemplary – and I would agree – but it has a very clear concept, which the conductor realizes with absolute conviction. Listening to this evening’s performance, I often had the impression that the concept here was basically trying to be different.

When I wrote the last time Bizet’s Carmen was played in the Philharmonie, I said that the performance had been held under “the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found”. If the approach made Bizet’s music more eloquent, I am not sure about its success in Mozart. First of all, as much as I dislike Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s fussy acc. and ritt. in his Zürich recording, there seems to be some method into that, questionable as the results are. This evening, the fact that the rhythmic structure of various numbers were artificially undermined in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto did not seem to make particular sense – some other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) were so hectic that one could not help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. Even when the beat did not show any eccentricity (as in Sarastro’s arias), one felt that the music was not being given enough time to breath and produce its effect. There were moments too, when one could see how effective things could be if they had been left alone – Der Hölle Rache, for instance, was very excitingly played in a very organic manner. As a matter of fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker never ceased to marvel with full-toned, clearly articulated playing. Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen had beautiful effects in the strings. The Rundfunkchor Berlin too sang with impressive accuracy. The excellence of these musicians alone made the performance worth the while, but one would wish nonetheless to see their talents employed to portray a less capricious and more integrated vision of this work.

The cast here assembled is particularly glamorous in small roles, but features some upcoming singers in main roles. Klemperer did the same when he had, for instance, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp in his recording – and he proved to have bet in the right names. Here one is not so sure. One can see a touch of Kiri Te Kanawa in Kate Royal’s voice, but only now and then. At that point of her career, Dame Kiri was already a flawless Mozart singer, while Royal has too many awkward moments. She does have imagination – her Ach, ich fühl’s (not surprisingly her best moment) was less generically expressive than illustrative of the text. It did catch my attention. Replacing Simone Kermes – an odd choice for the role anyway – Ana Durlovsky proved to be very attentive to the text and to have a warm low register and very clear fioriture, but it is a helplessly light voice for the Queen of the Night, especially in the higher reaches. Benjamin Hulett (Pavol Breslik takes the role of Tamino otherwise) too has a light voice for his part and had his taut moments, but the voice is so pleasant and his sense of style so sure that one tended to take his side. Michael Nagy was an almost ideal Papageno: his baritone is warm, his diction is crystalline, his tonal variety praiseworthy. He masters the art of being funny without overdoing it. Dimitri Ivashchenko finds no difficulty in the writing of Sarastro and fills the hall with dark and focused sounds. Sometimes one misses some nobility of tone and emotional generosity, but maybe I’m spoiled by René Pape’s performance in the Staatsoper.

Some have found the idea of casting the Three Ladies with Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann exaggerated. I haven’t – I found it very exciting to see their combination of their unique vocal and expressive qualities. I am not so sure about the idea using the deleted cadenza for the opening number, though. José Van Dam (Sprecher) does not sound as a veteran singer at all and the three boys from the Aurelius Sängerknaben sang beautifully too.

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I was not going to write a third review of a performance of August Everding’s production of Die Zauberflöte for the Berlin Staatsoper (no1 and no2), but then the experience of seeing it in the Schiller Theater was new for me. It works surprisingly well in the more “modern” auditorium, where everybody can see the sets from the right perspective. I don’t know if they have been “retouched”, but this time I did not have the impression of decay that I had last time.

It is impossible to compare from memory Julien Salemkour’s conducting back in 2009 and this evening’s performance. Back then the I wrote of egg-timer approach; this evening, the fast speeds seem more coherent, even if some numbers seemed entirely devoid of charm in the oversprightly beat (Bei Männer, for example). Although she still has the occasional intonation lapse, this was the best Pamina I have ever heard from Adriane Queiroz. Her voice is still on the rich side for Pamina, but she was able to keep it focused and light throughout, sounding unusually creamy-, fruity-toned and youthful. Anna Siminska’s soprano was so shallow in her first aria that I feared for the worst in her second one. As with every “professional” Queen of the Night, she could probably sing Der Hölle Rache in her sleep – and it sounded like that. Joel Prieto was almost ideally cast, ardently sung in his firm, spontaneous tenor. He did have some excessively open-toned moments in an almost Neapolitan way, but all in all he was one of the best Taminos I have recently seen. Even if Roman Trekel’s Papageno sounds even rougher these days, I cannot resist his boorish approach for the role – I am afraid I would not trade a smoother tone for his truly funny performance. Alexander Vinogradov is an ample-voiced, stylish Sarastro. His extreme low notes were reliable if lacking a bit of space and he cannot compete with René Pape in tonal beauty – a very commendable performance in any case.

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My five or six readers know that I have tried hard to get used to René Jacobs’s wayward Mozart. I have even showed some appreciation for his Idomeneo, but the truth is that it always requires from me an enormous effort of adaptation. This evening’s Zauberflöte, performed in concert version in the Philharmonie, tested my open-mindness from moment one. The orchestral sound was brassy, the tempo was too brisk for the string players and blurred divisions abounded.

Then there was the omnipresent odd sudden tempo shift. Although some of that seemed to be justified by the libretto, the libretto itself did not inspire the composer himself to write any of these in the score. It seems that the many cute liberties taken with what Mozart wrote did not annoy the audience: unwritten pauses, an intruding fortepiano “continuo” (also during dialogues), misplaced ornaments (does the folksong-like simplicity of Könnte jeder brave Mann call for decoration, for example?), soloists appearing in choral parts and chorus appearing in solo parts… Does Mozart need all that? One could surely make use of some theatricality, but Jacobs’s approach is so Schwarzkopf-ian in its various and self-conscious mannerisms that all possibility of immediacy and directness is lost; one would think that the work had been composed for a court theatre! If I had to find a positive side to all that, that would be finally listening to a conductor who had at least cared to read through the score, but I really wished he had not overwritten on it.

During this performance, I have started to think that it is a pity that all lyric voices today are probably singing Wagner and Verdi above their natural Fach. Long gone are the days where substantial-voiced singers appeared in Mozart.  Our generation has very rare or no singers like Gundula Janowitz, Margaret Price, Francisco Araiza or Fritz Wunderlich and listening to Die Zauberflöte in a big hall such as the Philharmonie finally involves singing without the last ounce of tonal freedom, as we heard today.

Lovely as Marlis Petersen’s light soprano is, it has no colour in its lower reaches and moments that require stronger dynamics are met with some strain. Of course, she is an intelligent and expressive singer and her clever handling of Jacobs’s genuine andante for Ach, ich fühl’s deserves praise. Anna Kristiina Kaappola is tonally shallow and only acquires hearability in its high register. She handles the specific challenges of the part of the Königin der Nacht really nimbly – and her in alts are bright and firm – but “ordinary” phrases are handled in such an indistinguished manner that one could take the role as she were practising her Vaccai in front of the audience. In any case, her intent to sing her staccato notes with the vowel of the text is admirable. Daniel Behle’s tenor sounds a bit bottled-up and straight-toned in its higher reaches. That said, it has been a while since I last heard the role of Tamino sung with such variety, good-taste and stylishness. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno, on the other hand, was tonally unvaried and vocally small-scaled. He is a funny guy and finally beguiled the audience with his acting skills, but there should be more than an Austrian accent (a must for the role, according to the conductor’s words in the libretto) in Papageno. Marcos Fink has a beautiful voice and sings with affection, but hitting the low notes does not mean that one has the depth of voice required by it. As it is, his Sarastro was more a matter of elegance than of authority. In his sense, the evening’s Sprecher, Konstantin Wolff offered something more forceful than anyone else. The three ladies, Inga Kalna, Anna Gravelius and Isabelle Druet were extremely spirited, but I wished for a bit more focus from all of them. In that sense, the three St. Florian Sängerknaben offered a particularly clear sound.

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Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a challenge to any stage director – this is not an opera for children, but it certainly is a fairytale, the depths of which should rather be hinted at than fully explored. Günter Krämer’s 1991 staging for the Deutsche Oper tries to update things a bit, by having Monostatos talking pocket psychology while Pamina rests her head on his shoulder or the three ladies threatening Papageno with pistol guns. Some of the “creative” touches have their charm, especially the opening scene with the dragon operated by puppeteers who take part in the action, but some elements in the original plot are replaced by basically nothing and a couple of episodes are ultimately uneventful, such as the Queen of the Night’s arias.

To make things even more uneventful, conductor Matthias Foremny offered a lazy approach to the score, lacking forward-movement, energy and purpose. Notes followed each other without any spirit behind them as if the idea were to play safe. I just wonder how safe one has to be with a world-class orchestra and a reliable cast. I’ve chosen the word “reliable”, because the performances this evening rarely went beyond that. 

Heidi Stober, for example, has a pleasant creamy voice, but her phrasing is too often inert. Pamina is a gift-from-Heaven of a role for a lyric soprano – it offers every imaginable possible opportunities for a singer to show her sense of style and to use her expressive tools, but Ms. Stober let so many of them pass by that in the end no-one really cared about her performance. Unfortunately, Hulkar Sabirova was not in her best voice – she struggled a bit with high notes and only achieved Der Hölle Rache out of sheer technique. She has a rich voice and impressively clear divisions – I reckon she must be a very exciting Queen of the Night in a good day. Yosep Kang is a healthy-voiced and stylish Tamino, but tonal variety is not really within his possibilities. What has happened to Mozart tenors who could colour a Mozartian phrasing with true affection and genuine elegance? Reinhard Hagen’s noble-toned Sarastro is always an effective piece of casting, but the results were rather cold if one has in mind René Pape’s last Sarastros in the Lindenoper. Simon Pauly’s Papageno falls in a different slot – that was a truly endearing performance, beautifully sung, stylishly phrased and intelligently handled, also in the acting department. Last but not least, the three boys from the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund were unusually musical and pleasant-voiced.

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Back to the Lindenoper’s recreation of the historic (and historical) Schinkel production, I can now report a little bit more enchantment because this time I had a parterre ticket. When you have a frontal view of the stage, the cardboard sets do work to the right effect and the fun is not spoilt by the view of poles, sticks and ropes behind the scene by those seated in upper levels or on the side. Still, the production is already old and desperately cries for a new process of stage rehearsals. Some scenes look messy, some change of sets verge on catastrophical. Worse: since gestures and movements were blocked looong time ago (with other singers), many scenes look either mechanical or, when they are not, it is because singers are indulging in a series of ad libs (that finally bring some freshness to the proceedings, it must be said).

The messy impression is not only a result of what one saw on stage, but also of what one heard from the pit. After an overture from hell, when everything was poorly synchronized, blurred and noisy, conductor Dan Ettinger tried during the whole evening to set pace, without really ever succeeding. Some serious mismatches in key moments abounded and attempts to generate some energy finally resulted in loud orchestra covering soloists. The side effect was some stretches of unsubtle singing by some members of the cast.

Adriane Queiroz was an unusually rich-toned Pamina whose approach has its heavy-footed moments, but who finally beguiled the audience with an expressive account of Ach, ich fühl’s in which she proved her ability to spin seamless legato. Her Pamina has also more attitude than we are used to see – and that worked to good effect in her “attempted suicide” scene. Sen Guo has no problem with high staccato and in alt notes, but she was ill at ease with everything else. Her first aria displayed rather arthritic coloratura and unfocused low register, problems less evident in Der Hölle Rache. She has clear German, but must work on her body expression, which is rather mute. I wonder if Martin Homrich should sing Mozart – one can see he knows what Mozartian singing should be, but it comes so unnaturally to him that his singing sounded constantly graceless, laborious and not truly on pitch. When it comes to Roman Trekel’s Papageno, it is true that his phrasing was almost unvariably rough, but the roughness was part of his overall concept of a boorish yet likeable Papageno. In the end, even if Mozartian grace should take some part in it, he was probably one of the less nonsensical Papagenos I have ever seen. I have saved the best for last – I have seen René Pape’s Sarastro in different occasions at the Metropolitan Opera House, but somehow found him too chic for the circumstances. Not this evening – he sang with such depth of expression, naturalness and intelligence that the role of Sarastro acquired a rarely seen three-dimensionality. His In diesen heil’gen Hallen was full of unforced emotion and one could have the sensation that time stood still while he sang it.

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I have to confess I was eager to see August Everding’s 15-year old production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for the Staatsoper unter den Linden because of the attempt to reproduce sets and costumes from the famous 1816 Karl Friedrich Schnikel production for the Königlichen Schauspiele, as seen below.

In the booklet, Everding and his creative team explain what sort of adaptations had to be made to transform these set designs into three-dimension sceneries, but the truth is, unless you have an orchestral seat right in the middle of the auditorium, the experience is seriously impaired by the fact that the production seems depressingly two-dimensional: you can always see the end of backdrops and the wood-structures that keep everything in place, not to mention that nothing seems really symmetric. I have a serious problem with directors who disregard that opera houses have seats on the right and left sides and also on the other levels. We all know that XIXth century-sceneries tended to be flat, but once you’re adapting, this problem could have been seen to. I also dislike the shining black surface added to the stage floor – the sets do not seem to take advantage of the reflex and, otherwise, its modernity does not go with the cardboard scenic elements and painted backdrops. It might be only a detail, but it makes the whole thing look like the Epcot-center version of the Magic Flute. 

To make things even less atmospheric, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed to be really concerned about not being late for dinner. He tried to make things fast, but without any hint of animation or the energetic accents that would make phrases actually alive. To say the truth, the performance seemed underrehearsed – there was very little clarity in the orchestral playing, mismatches with soloists abounded and, at some moments, there seemed to be a struggle between singers and the conductor to set the pace, as in Bei Männer or, more seriously in Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen.

In the cast, the low voices stand out – Christof Fischesser has a natural and spacious low register and, although his voice could be a bit nobler, he compensated that by  sober, elegant phrasing. On the other hand, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s dark-toned Papageno was always vivacious and keenly sung. Stephan Rügamer’s Mozartian singing still needs some work. The basic tonal quality is extremely pleasant, he is musicianly and stylish, but whenever he has to ascend through the passaggio in full voice, the tone acquires an intense nasality that robs his tenor of all pleasantness. As for Sylvia Schwartz, this is a technically accomplished singer with no hint of effort or discomfort, but the voice has a grainy quality that prevents it from sounding really lovely, young-sounding and ultimately seductive as a singer in her Fach should. If you can go beyond this minor drawback, hers was an exemplary account of the part of Pamina. Ana Durlovski has a strange voice for the Queen of the Night – the sound has the right impact… in the lower reaches. Her high register lacks cutting edge and she slides a bit in order to keep in tempo with her fioriture, but her high staccato notes are truly accurate.

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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.

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The Teatro Municipal’s music director Jan Latham-König has conducted many a Wagner and Strauss opera in Santiago – and trusting him Die Zauberflöte seemed to be a choice for heavy Mozart playing, as in the days in which Harnoncourt was just a baby. That preconceived notion was soon dispelled in the first bars of the overture: Latham-König’s Mozart not only is structurally crystalline but also dramatically and coherently conceived. His eye for detail and his care with clear pheasing are praiseworthy, and the orchestra’s dry string playing and the occasionally blunder in the brass section could easily be overlooked. Michael Hampe’s understated production verged on the artless and one could easily think of budget limitation, but in the end the show’s old-fashioned charm found a convincing note. Some moments really gave me the feeling of watching a production sprung from a black and white picture from the 30’s – and I only hope this was intentional!

Conductor and director had an animated cast to work with. I confess I was not really excited to read that Valentina Farcas was taking the role of Pamina. My previous experience with this singer was Salzburg’s video of Die Entführung der Serail, in which she is an extremely metallic-toned Blondchen. Live her soprano is far warmer, if diminute and lacking roundness in the higher reaches. Despite those drawbacks, she produced a most sensitive Ach, ich fühl’s. From this aria on, she showed her strengths in floating pianissimi and an impressively long breath. As the Königin der Nacht, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan resisted the temptation of making it pretty and produced forceful intense accounts of her arias. Her in alts are certainly impressive and her fioriture are really accurate. French tenor Xavier Mas has an extraordinarily velvety voice and a caressing line, but his whole method is too heavy for such a lyric instrument. Because of that, his ascents above high f were invariably tense. Maybe if he could relax and adopt a higher and more natural placement, he would achieve optimal results. It was good to see again Rodion Pogossov’s beautifully sung Papageno. He has indeed a most likeable stage persona – and witnessing him out of Julie Taymor’s Met Zauberflöte is an evidence that a less intrusive production is always healthy. Kristinn Sigmundsson was in excellent voice as Sarastro, dealing with the role’s problematic tessitura without any difficulty and singing his lines with true feeling for Mozartian style. The Teatro Municipal has some good talents at its disposal – the three ladies were excellent, especially Evelyn Ramírez’s Third Lady. Her strong contralto is a true find. Jenny Muñoz’s bell-toned Papagena was certainly refreshing and Gonzalo Araya was a firm-toned Monostatos.

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