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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL OPERA  REVIEW
 

  Mozart, Die Zauberflöte: Soloists, Dalasinfoniettans Choir and Dalasinfoniettan / Gintaras Rinkevicius at Dalhalla Opera Festival, Sweden, 7.8.2009 (Premiere) (GF)

Director: Stein Winge
Set Design: Jesper Kjällquist
Costume Design: Åsa L Tigerstrand
Light Design: Sven Park

Cast:

Papageno - Espen Fegran
Pamina - Eir Inderhaug
Tamino - Klas Hedlund
President Sarastro - Michael Schmidberger
Queen of the Night - Susanne Elmark
Monostatos - Magnus Kyhle
Papagena - Kamila Benhamza
First Lady - Marie Alexis
Second Lady - Katarina Böhm
Third Lady - Maria Sanner
Rat Pack I - Randi Bjerge
Rat Pack II - Mikael Bellini
Rat Pack III - Christian Wegmann
First Advisor - Balcarras Crafoord
Second Advisor and first Master of Ceremoni - Michael Axelsson
Second Master of Ceremoni - Staffan Alveteg


The orchestra at the back of the stage, forming the backdrop for the play; Tamino (with girl behind) making his entrance by motorbike during the overture, driving into the auditorium; the terrible snake that chases him onto the stage is a group of umbrella equipped persons; the Queen of the Night arriving by pyramid shaped vessel on the lake; The Rat Pack (= the three boys but here three playboys, supposed to be incarnations of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, sipping drinks on a balcony close by when not being on stage) roll in on an extended tandem; and Pamina that timid, sorrowful and lovely creature, is a tough bride on roller skates and with revolver, firing at Monostatos and his gang. She is no Annie Oakley, rather modeled after Lisbet Salander, the central character in Stieg Larsson’s eminently best-selling novel trilogy, which is now also a box-office success as a movie: small, dark and hot-tempered.

These are just a few examples from the first act. The 21st century meets Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s 18th century world. In director Stein Winge’s world of conception anything can happen, fantasy and reality being united. And, really, what is so remarkable with this? To most present-day theatre-goers the 18th century is largely beyond comprehension, and so they need some reference points to their own time. The story in itself was of course a fairytale even in Mozart’s time and a good fairytale is always tempting, but some brushing up may make it even more attractive. So Stein Winge and his production team have done their best to facilitate the adventure for the audience, which at Dalhalla is made up of quite a few visitors who are not regular opera-goers. By extending the stage and the action into the auditorium and even behind and above, we are invited to participate. In Dalhalla there are no strict borderlines between stage and auditorium, and in this production this is further underline by the ante-stage built over the lake that normally separates the stage from the audience.

Is this revolutionary? I wouldn’t say it is. Winge isn’t the first director to see the possibilities at Dalhalla, unavailable at most traditional opera houses, but the productions we have seen for quite some years now have been existing concepts from e.g. the Estonian National Opera and Bolshoi, where directors have seen possibilities to extend the concept. Stein Winge could start from scratch and so go a step further. Projection on the steep limestone walls is a grateful device. I remember Aida some years ago with symbolic scarabs crawling on the walls in the final tomb scene. Winge shows that we are all locked in in Sarastro’s headquarters and projects large windows. The final victory for Tamino and Pamina, having passed the last trial, is celebrated with spectacular fireworks and illuminated fountains and Sarastro makes his final appearance on top of the newly built 600,000 Euro roof, many meters above the stage floor. This is congenial and gives further evidence that this is a production for the broad mass of the people. And there is nothing wrong in that - but it isn’t revolutionary.

When it comes to Winge’s reading of the text we may be in for at least some surprises. The plot in Die Zauberflöte (well, at Dalhalla it is sung and spoken in Swedish and consequently we are watching Trollflöjten) is well known to most opera aficionados, and even many non-aficionados have probably seen Ingmar Bergman’s film version from the 1970s. But do we understand it properly? To begin with: who is good and who is bad? What complicates the situation is that Schikaneder changes foot between the acts. The evil Sarastro - a tyrant according to Tamino - becomes a high priest. The Queen of the Night, who doesn’t exactly charm us - her two taxing arias make her musically stand out as just as ice-cold as Turandot - is rather amiable anyway in the first act but in the second she becomes a merciless avenger. Wasn’t she once married to Sarastro? Divorce sometimes leads to lifelong hatred, doesn’t it?

Stein Winge openly declares in the program notes that there are no villains and heroes in this play. ‘We examine the human conflicts in the struggle to achieve something.’ But he also says: ‘ [the Queen of the Night] is really just a woman fighting for her child. Sarastro matches her but he has more power. I sympathize with the Queen of the Night. Sarastro must have been a real bastard.’

President Sarastro is certainly presented here as a man of power, a rigorous leader of some ultra-extreme religious clan - and we have experienced such phenomena in Sweden and elsewhere quite recently. And the Queen of the Night is truly moving, vulnerable and sensitive in the first encounter with Tamino.

This reversal of focus is perhaps the most revelatory reading in Stein Winge’s interpretation. Otherwise the production has the well known mix of seriousness and humour, the text is largely the conventional with some revision of the spoken dialogue and all in all it is good honest entertainment - with a lot of finely devised point-making.

DalaSinfoniettan, for this production augmented with extra strings, play well under Lithuanian conductor Gintaras Rinkevicius, who has been a regular guest at Dalhalla for several seasons. The chorus also sing and act convincingly and are nicely ‘choreographed’ to follow Tamino’s every movement in a very entertaining flute aria.

The all-Scandinavian cast of singers were chosen, besides their vocal capacity, for acting ability and for being comfortable in spoken Swedish. There is also true ensemble feeling throughout the performance. As Tamino Klas Hedlund decisively confirmed that he is arguably the best lyric tenor in Sweden since Gösta Winbergh. His light beautiful voice and elegant phrasing is ideal for the role and in Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön he sang with a tone and expression reminiscent of Richard Tauber. There can hardly be higher praise. Norwegian Eir Inderhaug, today permanent member of the Komische Oper in Berlin, was also an ideal Pamina, warm and sensitive, and her aria in act II was marvellously sung with bell-like clarity and ravishing tone. A vocal high-spot.

Her compatriot Espen Fegran, excellent actor and comedian, had a field day as Papageno. There are few roles that are so grateful for a good baritone with theatrical instinct, and he never missed a point. Kamila Benhamza was his delectable Papagena, when she eventually was allowed to get out of her crone disguise.

So much for the ‘good’ characters. As depicted here Sarastro has to be classified as evil and Michael Schmidberger’s voluminous bass gave him stern authority. He was rather wobbly in his brief appearance in the first act but fortunately he was steadier in the second act - and that’s where he has his two set pieces. Though not always ingratiating he has all the low notes. Susanne Elmark, who has a busy international career, where the Queen of the Night is one of her key roles, sang her two showpieces with admirable precision and not a sign of strain and her stratospheric top notes in Der Hölle Rache were hit plumb in the middle. The role of Monostatos was entrusted the experienced Magnus Kyhle, who has been a pillar of strength in the character sphere at the Stockholm Opera for almost 25 years. I have seen and heard him innumerable times in roles ranging from comic doodles to the explosive Canio in Pagliacci and he never lets anything down. This Monostatos was superb - splendid acting and perfect timing.

There were worthy contributions from the remaining soloists as well. The enthusiastic audience - among which there were quite a few chatterboxes disturbing the performance - totaled around 4,000 on the premiere night and reportedly the remaining three performances this year are also sold out. Maybe a reprise next year would be a good idea.

Göran Forsling

 

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