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Seen and Heard Recital Review

MOZART, Die Zauberflöte Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, dir. Charles Mackerras, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, February 14th 2005 (ME)

‘Tis through Love that atom pairs with atom,
In a harmony eternal, sure;
And ‘tis Love that links the spheres together
Through her only, Systems can endure.

Were she but effaced from Nature’s clockwork,
Into dust would fly the mighty world;
O’er thy Systems thou wouldst weep, great Newton
When with giant force to Chaos hurl’d!

Third time around for this Enlightenment production, first seen as recently as 2003, and it’s a remarkable third show on at the moment for the lighting director Paule Constable, who also lights what are arguably the two other keynote London productions now onstage, ENO’s La Clemenza di Tito and the Don Carlos at the Gielgud Theatre, in which Derek Jacobi is giving the performance of a lifetime. I have been fortunate enough to have seen all three within the space of ten days, and they have much in common quite apart from their lighting, notable though that is.


Schiller’s play, given in a new translation (not universally liked) by Mike Poulton, is substantially about the struggles of humanity to transcend ‘the imprisonment of men’s minds’ and concerns the duties of a sovereign towards his people and the future of his nation, themes shared by both these Mozart operas, but where Schiller shows the ruin of idealism and the ascendancy of authoritarianism, Mozart gives us the triumph of the human spirit as expressed in what Hardy’s Tess eloquently refers to as ‘lovingkindness.’ All three productions make much use of opposing images of light and darkness, the Schiller dominated by the cold grey of the prison-like court, into which the only penetrating colours are the brightness of daylight streaming in through the barred windows, and the terrifying emergence of the carmine-clad Grand Inquisitor, his ‘light’ paradoxically the worst darkness of all: the minimalism here was far more successful than the rather over-laden imagery of ‘Tito,’ but Zauberflöte succeeded where the production of the earlier opera failed in that its use of iconography was intelligent, meaningful and, in the best sense, illuminating.

David McVicar does not offer a cosy, pantomime style, ‘magical’ version of the ‘Flute,’ but a serious attempt to take the music and libretto on its own terms – that is, as a discussion about the ways in which mankind may attain enlightenment, either in the sense of ‘erleuchtung’ (spiritual) or ‘aufklarung’ (rational), and most of the imagery was drawn from what might be called the usual ‘myth-kitty’ – as is often the case with this director, but here the assorted symbols did not jar as they did in ‘Tito.’ John Macfarlane’s lavish designs were in fact the mainstay of this staging – certainly giving reason enough for me to deviate from my usual style of commenting first about the singers – that, and the fact that the singing was largely not at the level I would expect from the world’s leading lyric theatre.

Lovers of Dutch interiors would feel at home chez Sarastro, with grey-bustled little girls scurrying about and richly panelled walls reflecting mellow candlelight, and of course those acquainted with Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous work The Orrery would instantly recognize the setting of the room where Sarastro muses upon the fate of Tamino. The Orrery – a model of the solar system first made in 1700 and given its name after the Earl of Orrery – is finely reproduced onstage in gentle, inexorable motion, an image beautifully pointed up by the backdrop of the constellations in the night sky when the Queen appears. Heavens, I hear you say – what is this? Coherent, joined up imagery on an opera stage? Well, it does happen.

There was much else to delight the eye and intellect: the daftly foppish retinue surrounding Monostatos, all of them probably going by names like Sir Courtly Nice and Sir Fopling Flutter – quite appropriate in the production’s 18th century urban context, the clean-sliced sickle moon, looking like Larkin’s ‘air-sharpened blade’ which dominates the stage as the Queen enters; the wonderfully ornate beds, like something out of the original illustrations to ‘Sleeping Beauty;’ the luminous, golden glow suffusing the initiates at the end – that lighting again – and most interestingly the giant eye framed by light, presumably symbolizing the true vision which has been attained: an image presumably taken from Goethe’s ‘Optical Essays’ of 1792 in which he shows his own eye in a blaze of glory, looking down onto the defeated scientific instruments of the ‘Newtonians.’ Appropriate, of course, since here truth and vision have indeed conquered rationalism.

And the singing? Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno was the best live portrayal of the role that I have heard, even though there are times when he seems to be indicating that he could do it in his sleep: he’s an intensely physical stage actor, literally throwing himself into his part and creating a completely believable character, and his vocal prowess matches this. ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ was elegantly as well as endearingly sung, and his contribution to ‘Bei Männern’ – even though the two voices did not quite blend as they should – was forcefully phrased. A very fine performance, and it was not the evening’s only one, since the American baritone Kyle Ketelsen made a notable debut as the Speaker: it is this role which the other great Papageno of our day, Matthias Goerne, considers to be the most interesting in the work, and Ketelsen gave it the authority and grandeur which it needs, and his voice is beautiful, evenly focussed throughout the range and with a fine, burnished tone.


It was a pity that a similar authority and beauty of tone were absent from the Sarastro of Jan-Hendrik Rootering, whose stage presence lacks the required gravitas for this role and whose voice was far too often lost in his chest: I’m baffled that the ROH have engaged him for this part again, after his weakly sung and barely characterized
Hans Sachs
. Surely there exists a British bass who could give this coveted role the centrality which it needs? The casting of Will Hartmann is almost equally puzzling: are we so short of Taminos that the House must cast someone with such an unhewn sound and such evident lack of subtlety in phrasing? The fact that he displays a vibrato wide enough to throw a medicine ball through it doesn’t help much either: he has sung the role at Hanover State Opera and elsewhere, but this is Covent Garden for Heaven’s sake: I have heard better – and often – at ENO. His Pamina was the very pretty Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, whose pedigree is somewhat more illustrious but whose singing on this occasion was lacking in focus: the voice has some heft to it, but she often scooped up to the notes and ‘Ach, Ich fühl’s’ was marred by a rather distancing effect of the singer concentrating so hard on merely getting the notes out that there was no room for subtlety with language.

Anna-Kristiina Kaapola’s Queen of the Night was clearly nervous during her first aria, so many soured notes emerged, but she recovered to give a piercing account of ‘Der hölle Rache’ with all four top Fs neatly in place: she did not convey any sense of menace or domination though, and that is surely what her coloratura is meant to provide. John Graham-Hall was a seedy Monostatos, singing with bright tone and incisive phrasing, and the Three Ladies provided some intermittently fine singing, with Gillian Webster’s First lady the most consistently pleasing. The Three Boys had plenty of charm without being too coy, and the Priests and Armoured men delivered some strong characterization – good to see the very promising tenor Robert Murray following up his house debut in Traviata last month. I found the production’s concept of Papagena (Gail Pearson) mystifying: she should look like Papageno, yet here she was tricked out in Chav-style pink vinyl and wide white belt, so that far from breaking into a duet you half expected her to shriek ‘I’m the only gay in the village, you know…’ and as for any sense of the sheer palpitating excitement of that wondrous ‘Pa-pa-pa’ duet, you could forget it – this was rushed as though singers and orchestra had a train to catch.

In the pit, Mackerras delivered his usual carefully managed, meticulously pointed account of the score, drawing some lovely playing from the orchestra who were nonetheless not on their best form – ENO’s last week put them in the shade: perhaps as the run settles down, the playing will reach the expected level. As for the choral singing, there was little to be desired: Renato Balsadonna had shaped them into a superb ensemble, shining with clarity in ‘O Isis und Osiris’ and at once reverent and ecstatic in the sublime ‘Heil sei euch Geweihten.’

‘…Freedom dwells but in the realm of visions,
And beauty lives but in the poet’s song.’

Schiller again, and it was unexpectedly in the realm of visions that this production succeeded, since there was not much beauty in the singing.

Melanie Eskenazi

Photo Credits: Pamina - Rebecca Evans, Monostatos - John Graham-Hall, Tamino - Will Hartmann © Catherine Ashmore, Royal Opera, Covent Garden February 2005



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