This is a musically compelling version with no obvious weak links. Deon Van Der Walt gives us a brilliant Tamino and his magnificent tone is apparent from the very first entry. It’s tragic to think that this great singer lost his life in a gun incident in his native South Africa when he was a young man at the peak of his career. He is the star of this production and I recommend this DVD for his performance alone - both musically and dramatically - that’s how good he is. Second in the pecking order, if you will excuse the pun, is the Papageno of Thomas Mohr. He is likeable, funny without going way over the top, enthusiastic and his arias are beautifully judged, especially Ein Madchen oder Weibchen where there is a tangible personal interplay between soloist and conductor. This is a key point about the production as a whole - it is small-scale and intensely intimate. Gönnenwein can virtually reach out from the pit to the singers on the small stage of this tiny opera house. A major benefit of this physical scale is the immaculate ensemble work. Everything is tight and secure with Gönnenwein and his superb orchestra giving fine support with sensible tempi allowing his singers to articulate properly without being rushed. The use of cameras in the pit brings the orchestra straight into the living room and makes the viewer feel part of a live experience right from the off.
Now for a few words about the stage production. The scenery and props would be called cheap and tacky if you came across them in a performance given in a village hall by the local amateur dramatic society. The total budget was probably around £500. However, this is a professional production so you have to call it minimalist. Either way, what we have is a plain white stage with a cardboard serpent, cardboard animals and a cardboard tree. The trials by fire and water are somewhat ridiculous with their single rows of cut out flames and waves. Having said that, the fairy tale element of this bizarre masterpiece still shines through once you have got used to the idea. Indeed, the whole story is so peculiar and outlandish that it’s hard to be too critical of new and different approaches. Perhaps the small stage put severe limits on what was possible in terms of the set. Anything too fancy would have made the space uncomfortably small for the singers. Musically it is consistently fine and that’s the main point, isn’t it? I thoroughly enjoyed it second time around once I knew what to expect.
The costumes are unusual to say the least. The three ladies, dressed in tight red lycra body stockings, look like extras from a science fiction movie. The three boys have to suffer the indignity of wearing shorts and cardboard wings. The shorts theme continues with Papageno who also wears boots and white socks with a token feather at the rear. Tamino looks the part with his white Japanese robe but Monostatos is something else with his leopard skin cape. The whole concept is most peculiar but also rather attractive.
Finally, back to the music. Cornelius Hauptmann is a good Sarastro, maybe just lacking a bit of resonance in the lower register. Ulrike Sonntag is excellent in her Act 2 arias and she has real rapport with Deon Van Der Walt throughout. The two Queen of the Night arias are admirable but not immaculate and finally I have to praise the three boys. They really sing their hearts out and are an integral part of the production rather than mere bit players.
This is a fine Magic Flute. It is intimate and beautifully sung and acted. Don’t be put off by the stage production. However, this should be bought as a second or third version to put on your shelves rather than as a first recommendation.