Countless dozens of Ph.D theses must be written about Mozart’s The Magic Flute and yet it is so lively with elements of fantasy and free-flying imagination that it is often the first opera to which children are taken. It has a plot of such complexity that it takes several viewings for all but the most studious opera buffs to sort out the characters and follow the ins and outs of the multilevel story. At the same time it has so much easily accessible charm and so many glorious Mozart tunes that even the novice will be captivated.
There is a large cast of characters including the priest Sarastro (a very serious, proselytizing basso), the Queen of the Night (a mean, angry, scheming coloratura), and her daughter, the beautiful and courageous Pamina. There is the handsome hero, Tamino, on the quintessential road trip, and his cohort in misadventure, the bird seller, Papageno. Papageno ultimately finds his Papagena (who starts out disguised as a crone), Tamino ultimately wins Pamina, Sarastro presumably wins a passle of converts, and everyone goes home humming the catchy Mozart melodies. It is all presented in a plot complicated by a dragon, a threesome of warbling ladies in service to the Queen of the Night, another threesome of boy-angels, even a bully – Monostatos, guard for the Queen. It is lightened by such elements as locked lips, charmed animals, and, of course, a magic flute.
Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791, just after the French Revolution and just before he died. Haydn had introduced Mozart to Freemasonry, and the opera is full of the ideas (the autonomy of the individual, self-determination, appalling sexism), the ideals (power, wisdom, beauty), and the symbols (aprons, hammers, compasses, a pyramid with an all-seeing eye) of the Masons. Rituals, tests, initiations come into play. It is no wonder the scholars have found Flute to be a rich vein of ore for analysis and refinement.
But Mozart was working with co-librettist and theater director Emanuel Schikaneder, who was partial to the use of then state-of-the-art special effects on the stage. If the heavy Masonic ideas might get in the way of good theater, Schikaneder saw to it that the fantasy and stage magic kept his audience enthralled. At Berlin’s Komische Oper this season, Schikaneder has found his soul-mate in Harry Kupfer, artistic director of the company and director of the new production of Flute. Kupfer, who has a reputation for imagination, if not for restraint, pulls out all the stops for this production (designed by Valeri Lewental). It looks as if they rummaged through the warehouse and threw onto the stage costumes and props from anything and everything played by Komische Oper for the last ten years.
Kupfer makes a big opening mistake in bringing out Tamino before the overture, forcing him to cast about and pretend to act, when nothing is happening or even supposed to be happening during the overture. It’s an old trick, gratuitous, meaningless, and embarrassing here. Another old trick is framing the action in the eyes of three boys who wander pointlessly through the entire evening’s activities.
A platform stands center stage which, with trap doors and elevators allows for scenery or scenic elements to rise and fall, as well as actors to appear and disappear. Large tubes of abstracted elements (like "forest") rise up at the sides. Strobe white lighting is used for effects that seem a throwback to the 1960s more often than not. The three ladies of the Queen enter from the mouths of dragons, Papageno enters from a cracked egg, and the Queen herself enters on a boat lowered from the flies, encased in yet another tube of painted scrim – this one pausing on its way down and needing adjustment for mechanical difficulties. (That can happen anywhere.) Before the evening is over Kupfer throws in a giant metronome, computers, robots, enough animals to populate an entire zoo, cornucopia hats, arabic robes, Sarastro in black blazer and skirt, and period costumes ranging from Tamino’s Dickensian brown tail suit with jabot to contemporary street clothes for the final chorus. It is Zeffirelli excess without Zeffirelli style.
None of this would matter, of course, if the singing was terrific, but it wasn’t. There was one glorious voice delivered with poise and charm – the Pamina of Anna Korondi. It was as if she had escaped from another production. The Tamino, Mark�s Sch�fer is handsome and winning, his musical performance adequate, but undistinguished. The same might be said of the Papageno of Raimund Nolte and the three ladies of the Queen were fine. But Matthias H�lle is not a bass, but a baritone without a bottom, and the beautiful bass notes of Sarastro became inaudible as H�lle dipped out of his range. Erika Miklosa has neither the range, nor the vocal skills, nor the temperament of the Queen of the Night; she might make a good Queen of High Tea. In short, a highly uneven musical evening, and one in which the music was never able to soar and beguile as The Magic Flute must.
Komische Oper is the third tier company in Berlin, in budget as well as in ticket prices. This has the distinct advantage of making opera accessible to young people and there were plenty in the audience the other night, rarely seen, one would guess, at the other houses here and almost never in the US. But while young people may be wooed to opera with overdone productions, they are not likely to become devotees unless they are captured with beautifully sung music. Otherwise, it’s back to The Phantom Menace, where the scenery doesn’t get stuck.