Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ryan Wigglesworth
Glyndebourne Festival, 6 August 2019
This is the 7th production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne, and the popularity of Mozart’s singspiel seems undiminished, judging by the sell-out of the entire run. This time it was directed by the Canadian partnership of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, the former providing the designs, the latter the direction. If you are the sort of opera-goer who struggles with even the simplest plots and prefers to just let the music and the visual spectacle wash over you, this may be the Magic Flute for you. Musically, it was outstanding, with fine singing from a strong cast and excellent playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Ryan Wigglesworth. André Barbe’s scenery was inventive, based on enlarged versions of his pen and ink sketches and clever use of perspective. That said, there are many questions about Renaud Doucet’s overall direction, not least in the liberties taken with the plot to fit with his own ideas about what he sees as the ‘problems’ with the original concept and libretto.
Like many, perhaps all, operas the plotline of Die Zauberflöte is questionable with its Masonic rituals that few of us understand today, and extremely dated views on many social issues, not least the role of women. Barbe & Doucet have radically changed the setting and much of the plot of the opera. We find ourselves in fin de siècle Vienna in the Hotel Sacher, seemingly under the ownership of the Queen of the Night (pictured) who seems to have been modelled on Anne Sacher, who ran the hotel after her husband’s death in 1892. Sarastro is the head chef, running an elaborate kitchen and household staff
It opens in a dream sequence where Tamino wanders in his pyjamas through the bustling hotel staff, seemingly sleep-walking. The use of puppets is evident when the serpent appears, and continues throughout, the climax being the two Armed Men depicted as enormous puppets, the two singers manipulating their spears alongside the puppeteers (pictured below). We quickly enter the Alice in Wonderland world of magic and pantomime with an endless array of effects, some really clever, some just pushed too long. There were frequent pauses in the music while some rather laboured stage action was enacted.
A continuing theme was Votes for Women (seen below in an unrelated scene in a murky basement, with enormous bats hanging from the ceiling); a reminder that Barbe and Doucet apparently refused to direct Die Zauberflöte for many years because of their disapproval of the text. I wonder why they changed their mind. The plot at least addresses issues of relevance today, but their reworking of it turned it increasingly into a joke. The concluding ordeals of Tamino and Papageno were a bit of cooking and washing up, something that doesn’t usually run the risk of promised death.
Amongst the oddities was that one of the chorus men was presented as a dwarf, the reveal that he had spent the entire time on his knees, pretending to be a dwarf, only coming when the chorus took the final applause. Quite why is beyond me. The start of the singing line up was Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro, with Caroline Wettergreen also impressing as the Queen of the Night. Tamino and Pamina were David Portillo and Sofia Fomina, the companion pair Papageno and Papagena, Björn Bürger and Alison Rose. To avoid the uncomfortable position of Monostatos, Jörg Schneider was cast as a boiler room worker, the blackened face not one of race, but of soot. Lisa Beznosiuk deserves special mention as the hard-working magic flute in the OAE pit. It was also interesting to read one of the programme book essays which seemed to directly contradict the basis for Barbe and Doucet’s production. Hey ho!
Photos: Glyndebourne/Bill Cooper