Wiener Staatsoper's Outstanding Die Zauberflöte

This production was, I'm fairly certain, the most thoroughly solid opera I have seen thus far at the Wiener Staatsoper. Everything seemed to fall into place, and the singers were able to craft truly engrossing interpretations of their roles. In general, I am not a fan of Die Zauberflöte because I find the plot to be jumpy, crazy, and with ill-joined disparately serious and comical sections. I find it hard to focus and hard to feel compelled by what occurs. This performance blended these different elements perfectly, and even as a critic of the work, I found myself swept up by both pageantry and mysticism.

First, background and a synopsis of the wild plot:


|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Adam Fischer | Dirigent
  • Marco Arturo Marelli | Regie, Bühne und Licht
  • Dagmar Niefind | Kostüme
  • Günther Groissböck | Sarastro
  • Benjamin Bruns | Tamino
  • Julia Novikova | Die Königin der Nacht
  • Genia Kühmeier | Pamina, ihre Tochter
  • Hans Peter Kammerer | Papageno
  • Morten Frank Larsen | Sprecher, 2. Priester
  • Peter Jelosits | 1. Priester
  • Christina Carvin | 1. Dame
  • Lena Belkina | 2. Dame
  • Monika Bohinec | 3. Dame
  • Valentina Nafornita | Papagena
  • Benedikt Kobel | Monostatos
  • Michael Roider | 1. Geharnischter
  • Janusz Monarcha | 2. Geharnischter
  • Wiener Sängerknaben | 3 Knaben

  • The set design for this production created the basis for the excellent show to follow. The main tenets of the set design were the colored curtain that divided the extreme downstage area from the rest of the stage at various points in the opera and the five-sided (open to the audience) cube formed out of a slanted floor and five hanging panels. The bridge above this entire set up was also important in the way it was utilized for the three children, who were given in this production a more important role than in many. The multicolored drape curtain was fascinating because it was rainbow colored, but mottled in such a way that it did not feel fake or kitschy, it was simply beautiful, like looking at a rainbow in a river. Not only was it beautiful (and a good beginning and ending for many acts), it also worked to divide the action and provide a change of scenery. The box inside was amazing in several regards. The fact that the walls and the floor were all comprised of square panels allowed for panels to turn into doors, trapdoors, and windows for characters to utilize. Also, the colors and prints on the box were able to change. In the beginning, it seemed to just have a matte blue hue, adding to the mystique of the Queen of the Night and the in medias res beginning. Later, dealing more with Sarastro and his band, the tiles changed to a white background overlaid with what looked like the lines of a map. This created a unique, clean, and engaging space in which the action could occur. Some occasional additions, like the eyehole entrance from upstage and the mini-cube that appeared in the center of the main cube to represent the trial of Tamino and Pamina only increased the ingenuity of the design and served to keep things interesting. The bridge over the top of all the action allowed for a unique place for the children to pass. It's true that they were not restricted to this location, but their primary residence on the gangplank bridge gave credence to the interpretation that the plot takes place in their minds, also evidenced by their seeming to age as the show progressed. The gangplank also gave the children the opportunity to seem to effect the show from on high by dropping a backpack tied to a rope, later thwarting Papageno's suicide attempt with the same rope, and so on. Finally, when they did actually come down from this high position, it was as though they were really actively trying to change the course of a story taking place in their minds. The gimmick that got it all started, of course, was the presence of the snake. This snake had a body and a head that wrapped all the way around the entire cube and took up the majority of the Staatsoper stage. Perhaps it is unrefined, but to see such a huge, amazing snake prop, moving its head around maliciously, really got the show going with a bang and brought the audience to rapt attention.

    The costuming was also quite interesting. The garb of Tamino and Pamina was fairly normal (it's interesting to note Tamino wears all white). Also, while I thought Papageno's outfit was tastefully yet excitingly done, it must be admitted that there's usually very little variation on his style. Papagena, when not covered in cloak to play the part of a crone, had a very innovative costume involving multiple removable petticoats. The main interest came, however, from the homogenous yet imaginative outfits of the Queen of the Night group and the Isis and Osiris group. It was very innovative to use ball gowns dressed up with fantasy-like elements to give the Queen of the Night and her band a sense of otherworldliness. Using earthy blues, deep greens, and thrumming purples helped take this to the next level. Finally, masks, face paint (down all the way to the breast-hem of the gowns), and headpieces completed the look. In stark contrast to these elaborate costumes, the Isis and Osiris followers seemed to wear white clothes that were stole-like robes also in white but banded in an enormous windowpane with silver. Monostatos, whose black garb allowed a reasonable explanation for the racist jokes inherent to the libretto, allowing the Staatsoper to keep those sections with equanimity rather than cutting them (as many companies do) or incurring the wrath of some clients. Finally, Sarastro himself had a similar outfit, but with gold all over it, as well, accurately representing him as a high priest.

    While great set design and costuming helped to set up a good basis for this solid production, it was exellent singing, tempered by superb direction, that truly brought Die Zauberflöte home. Perhaps it is then unsurprising that Marco Arturo Marelli filled the combined roles of stage and light design, and direction. It was the ability to make use of the unique set that really made everything feel integrated, to great success. Whether it was the way that Tamino and Papageno (and Papagena) cavorted around, the unique entrances or exits through the cube, the use of lights and even fireworks to convey mood, or the occasional use of balconies in the cube for Isis and Osiris members, everything worked together and played to one artistic idea.

    There are many roles in this opera, many of which also cannot readily be lumped into "chorus" groups and the like. I will brush over these in favor of more compelling analysis of the larger roles, with apologies to the performers involved. As a whole, the chorus and the minor priests, guards, slaves, and so on were very good, both in their character portrayal and also in their singing ability. The children, as mentioned before, played their part well, making it through their vocal lines with ample audibility (though they were not together a few times). They seemed very much children, while maintaining the sense that they did not quite belong with the other characters on stage. The Speaker of the Temple had a voice so rich that at times I thought perhaps he was Sarastro. The three women that accompany the Queen of the Night were incredible. Their abilities so thrilled me (especially in their opening number fighting over Tamino) that I wondered how singers that good were not singing Pamina or the Queen themselves. Benedikt Kobel, in the role of Monostatos perhaps deserves his own section, but for fear of the review having overwhelming length, I place him here. His tenor certainly fit the role he was playing, with a bit of a shrill bite to it, it made readily believable his ill-intentions. It might not be at sound I'd like to hear in a sweeter part (though his vocal acting, here, may simply be exquisite in masking a beautiful voice). Paired with menacing stage business and his stark black costume, he made quite an impression.

    There are great productions, great performances, and great singers. There are no perfect versions of any of these. If there was one glaring failure in this production, it was Julia Novikova's Queen of the Night. I must be very clear: when I say failure, I simply mean that Novikova fell short of the otherwise universally outstanding level of performance in this production. The Queen of the Night is a very difficult role. Nonetheless, Novikova seemed to be stuck in an indeterminate place that did now allow her quite enough of each necessary quality. Her agility was not quite sufficient to make it through some passages (she slowed them considerably to make it through), sometimes the voice wasn't loud enough to carry, she didn't quite have purity of tone all the time. An aria is not a role, and some arias carry so much stress due to popularity it's a wonder singers can handle them at all. That said, "Der Hölle Rache" had very inconsistent tempi and was quite pitchy through the famous highest sections. I mention it only in passing, because despite the aria's fame, her first aria was much better, and her difficulty handling this one did not mar an overall great performance by the cast as a whole.

    The trick of Sarastro's role is to convincingly pull off the dramatic shift from arch-enemy to protecting father figure. In some sort of dramatic epic, a tremendously complex, foreshadowed yet hidden, backstory would explain this. In Die Zauberflöte really very little, if any solid explanation is given for why Tamino and Pamina suddenly switch sides. Günther Groissböck's bass voice fit this dichotomy like a glove. His sizable tone was able, when necessary, to take on a bit of an edge. This emanated a sense of confidence in confrontations with the Queen of the Night, an air of authority laying down demands with Tamino, and a sense of justice in disciplining Monostatos. Despite this, for the latter half of the opera, he was able to spin a velvety, enveloping gloss, making his comforting of Pamina eminently believable, and his assumption of  the role of father figure to Tamino and Pamina seem natural. There are no flashy numbers or key moments for this role, but Günther Groissböck was part of the glue that made this production, overall, outstanding.

  • Valentina Nafornita played a wonderful Papagena. Her voice was definitely not large, and in even other Mozartean roles I might fear whether she could be heard over the orchestra. Still, in this role, she had the sweetest, purest voice that made us feel that, while sexy as Papagena, she was also a sweetheart worthy of our beloved, blundering Papageno. Her acting, truly, was what made her excellent. Masked as a crone she was entirely believable, with the greatest stereotypical old lady voice I've ever heard. Unmasked, she exuded the kind of verve and carefree excitement that characterizes the role of Papagena, even, or perhaps especially, as she was losing her petticoats.
  • No Papagena would be complete, however, without a Papageno, or perhaps it's the other way around... In any case, Hans Peter Kammerer gave the role his all, playing to the multitudinous range of emotions required in the role. Through both voice and acting he was able to convey fear, mock bravery, love, hope, despair, respect, disrespect, and a range of other emotions. Papageno is, in many ways, a jack of all trades. A singer that can pull off the role and convincingly be all of them while maintaining a distinct personality and not seeming schizophrenic, is truly excellent.

  • Perhaps one of the great injustices of Die Zauberflöte is that the role of Pamina is often given somewhat short shrift as audiences focus on the Queen of the Night with bated breath. Here, however, Genia Kühmeier blew me away. She possessed the grand charisma of a heroine and the innocence of an ingenue. This mixture was never more clear than in her "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden," where she truly seemed to have not a tone out of place. The conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night is the background of this opera, and often some of the spoils of that conflict are the focus. Similarly, the lovely lighthearted moments involving Papageno (and Papagena) often appeal to audiences, as well. Kühmeier reminded us that Pamina, truly, is the leading woman in this opera, and the heiress who arises, with Tamino, as the crowning new couple of their world.
    If Pamina reminded us of the show's true heroine, it was Benjamin Bruns in the role of Tamino who reminded us not only of its hero, but perhaps of its god, as well. I reviewed Bruns in the role of Oronte in the Staatsoper's production of Handel's Alcina and found his voice to be rough, though agile (this was appropriate in the rage arias, but it seemed to be consistent even in the sweeter sections). Here, in the role of Tamino, however, from the moment he opened his mouth to the time he closed it, he sounded divine. I, even as a tenor, am not particularly fond of "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön." When I heard it from Bruns I was blown away, held in rapt attention for every honeyed note of the aria. What was most convincing about Bruns' portrayal, I believe, was that he had all the sweetness of a romantic lead mixed with the confidence and steadfastness to stand against both the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, whoever might get in the way of his love Pamina.

  • You wouldn't get this insight if I were writing for a newspaper, but I can say that between seeing this show and the completion of this review I have since seen two other Staatsoper shows, La Traviata, and Salome. Both were quite good, but neither quite edged this one out for the throne of overall solidness.


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