I have just spent an evening at the opera which was pure enjoyment. Now, as I’ve said before, that doesn’t happen to me very often. Critical, analytical and practical considerations usually intervene, there is something in the staging or the singing or the wretched dramaturgy to irritate or annoy me … tonight? Nothing of all that. I just sat back and listened to beautiful music beautifully sung, laughed at the joyous antics of the comics … just pure enjoyment.
It helped, of course, that the opera was Der Zauberflöte. A Singspiel. Flooded with lovely music and fun. And rightfully a huge favourite. Last year, all three Berlin Opera Houses were playing it, this year its ‘only’ two but I happily chose to try this one. It is by no means a new production: it has been played over 300 times in 23 years, and it is easy to see why. Günter Krämer’s staging is simple, effective, not overloaded with look-at-me scenery or costumes yet providing some crystalline pictures (design: Andreas Reinhardt), but above all, fulfilling perfectly the main duty of a operatic director and designer: putting the singers into the best possible relief. Mission thoroughly accomplished.
Great support, too, came from the orchestra (conductor: Ivan Repusic), limited to a perfect reduced number and never obtrusive, always supportive. They got a warm round at the curtain.
Then there were the singers. It is very seldom I get through an opera, especially one with as many roles as this one has, without grimacing (to put it politely) a few times. I can remember (recent) occasions when I’ve heartily disliked an entire cast. This time I liked the whole cast! Bravo casting director. From F below the stave to F in alt it was all finely sung, and on occasions extremely finely sung.
Top of the list of my pleasures was the Pamina of Elena Tsallagova. Pamina is often cast too ‘heavy’ for my tastes. This lady was bang, bang, bang on. Beautiful, pure tones to go with a charming face and figure: her ‘Ach ich fühl's’ was sublime and when she sang ‘Tamii-iiino mein’ I got shivers down my back. Gorgeous.
Not suprisingly, I’m a Sarastro fan. I used to sing it a hundred years ago. But I never sang it like this! I last saw Tobias Kehrer playing the outrageous cook in Love for Three Oranges: what a change! Tall, calm, manly and with a smooth rich bass voice with seemingly not a join in it. He doesn’t change gear for the bottom Fs. They just roll out, as rich and large as the middle voice. Ideal casting. Splendid!
Yosep Kang as a smoothly passionate Tamino was immaculate as well. Tenors in Berlin are really looking up.
Of course, The Magic Flute was written by and for Emanuel Shikaneder and he took care to provide himself with a show-stealing role as Papageno. Only, too often, Papageno is quite silly, lumpy and dull. Not to-night! Tonight I saw simply the best Papageno of my life. The same Simon Pauly whom I had found indifferent as Belcore absolutely and undeniably made the part his own. He was comical and tender in turn, every little glance and aside showed the consummate actor, and the music of Mozart suited his voice much better than the showy strains of Donizetti. An absolute winner. Five gold stars.
But what is a Papageno without his Papagena? And Mr Pauly had a doozie! If he is my favourite Papageno ever, Alexandra Hutton is my favourite Papagena. So what a team they make. This is the young soprano I called ‘a quadruple threat’ when I saw her in Hoffman: she can do simply everything: sing, act, play comedy, dance … the abiding memory of tonight, for me, was her – in an adorable frock and hat -- crossing a ‘tightrope’ to her wondering man in a beautifully warm moment of mixed comedy and charm … Five more gold stars.
The role of the Queen of the Night is a cardboard-cutout beast. She really has nothing to do but sing her two famous showpieces and pretend to be Cruella de Ville. And Shikaneder didn’t help her, either, with her ineffectual little last appearance. The role has been dolled up in all sorts of garbs over the years, but Hulkar Sabirova played her dead straight, no wicked witch acting, and sang the two arias with limpid accuracy.
Amongst the smaller roles, Seth Carico made the Speaker more of a person (a Tibetan monk?) and more prominent than I have ever seen. You can see that this character is going to grow up to take over the Temple from Sarastro. Gideon Poppe did all that can be done with the grotesque Marley-wigged part of Monastatos, the three ladies were fun, but didn’t quite get their part-singing together, and quite a hit was made by the three little lads who played the genii. Especially when they peeped out from the wings to sing their harmonies.
So --- not a single complaint! An utterly ideal presentation of the opera, presented by a splendid team ..
I must find some quibbles. OK. (1) why in a Singspiel have surtitles for the songs but not the dialogue? (2) why didn’t Tamino play his flute? (3) why did Papageno have a white-painted face? (4) ummm .. ummm .. ummm oh yes, a note for Herr Shikaneder. Your libretto gets a bit straggly after the Fire and Water bit. Can you tidy it up a bit.
The End. Summary? An evening of pure enjoyment. Thank you to everyone involved. I’m still humming. Isn’t it a bummer that ‘Die Hölle rache’ is such a bitch to hum…?