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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, Opéra National de Paris, Bastille, February 18, 2005 (FC)

This production, one of the centerpieces of the first Gerard Mortier season at the Paris Opera, has taken such a drubbing from the local press that the opera’s website has taken to publishing thank-you notes from kids to demonstrate that at least some audience segments liked it. Could it merit all that vitriol? The short answer: yes.

He enlisted the risk-taking, razzle-dazzle Spanish troupe La Fura dels Baus, (who first came to international attention with their spectacular opening event of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona) to stage this Magic Flute. It was first seen at the Ruhr Triennial Festival in 2003 and later on European TV.


Two ideas predominate in the effort to “deconstruct” this opera. The first was to eliminate the spoken dialogue of the opera and substitute, in its place, overstuffed prose on Big Ideas. The second was to give center stage to a half-dozen or so Jolly Green Giant-sized inflatable mattresses, which the dwarfed characters dodged or stumbled upon when obliged to climb on and try to walk. A sizable crew was needed onstage the entire night pushing, pulling and hefting these into the sky. Costuming was bizarrely comic strip. Tamino and Pamina were stuffed into white jumpsuits with yellow day-glo flack jackets, for example. Busy video projections were on-again, off-again with words snaking before your eyes to questionable effect.


The elimination of spoken dialogue seemed to gut the theatrical heart of the opera. It was, finally, an evening of Zauberflöte “highlights” with some mostly irrelevant amplified musings by two actors perched on high judges chairs stage left and right looking like they were borrowed from the French Open. These words were in French while the sung dialogue was still in German.


The cast, most of whom I have heard before, some in the same roles, sounded strained and pallid. A Paris regular, the dependable tenor Paul Groves, for example, sang Tamino. I have heard him several times and I was surprised at his lack of vocal presence here. His most effective moment was the aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” which he delivered stage front. But when he sang down stage, he sounded like he was in a different arrondissement. Same thing for Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night. Making her Paris Opera debut, she arrived hoisted on a rolling platform but was most impressive while singing “O zittre nicht” thrust out above the orchestra, her long silver gown close to the gesturing arms of conductor Marc Minkowski. The giant stage was usually just decorated with these inflatable mattresses and the audience could see off into the wings on either side. Thus the vocal villain of the evening likely was the stage décor which ended up acting like a giant sound sponge.



Another casualty of the evening was Mozart’s genius as theater magician. The moment when Papageno and Papagena meet is followed by the duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” - a disarmingly simple tune describing the first breath-catching touch of love. Here the couple, engagingly sung by baritone Stéphane Degout and soprano Clair Ormshaw, meet in a pool of Styrofoam balls (the kind kids play in at IKEA while their parents shop) and the duet seems like an afterthought when the two are unceremoniously dumped out, laying among the balls. Fun for the kids? Maybe. Good for Mozart? Probably not.

Maestro Minkowski has shown that he is one of the finest Mozart conductors working today. Here, however, he was leading the Opera’s own orchestra and the group played like the tenured civil servants they are, starting and stopping (mostly) at the same time. There was little of the sparkle or wit that seems to flow easily from Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, his regular band. The Sarastro, Ain Anger, seemed to be missing his low notes - no small problem for that role - but otherwise the others in the cast made solid contributions with particular mention for Wolfgang Holzmair’s gracious Sprecher. The night I attended Julia Kleiter was an effective substitute Pamina for the indisposed Mureille Delunsch.

The Paris Opera has in storage two Magic Flute productions - by Robert Wilson and Benno Besson - that are among the finest anywhere. The decision to add this one to the list is, at best, a questionable one.

Frank Cadenhead

© Ursula Kaufmann & Opéra National de Paris: Paul Groves (Tamino), Erika Miklosa (Königin der Nacht), Mireille Delunsch (Pamina), Stéphane Degout (Papageno)



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