Die Zauberflöte: The best spirit in the world

If last week’s less-than-intoxicating L’elisir d’amore exhibited the worst tendencies of the Wiener Staatsoper repertory system, last night’s Zauberflöte showed some of its better ones.  Despite a scattershot production and some workmanlike singing, the average level of artistry was pretty good.  Add the usual strengths of orchestra and chorus, stellar conducting by Ivor Bolton, and a smashing Pamina from Genia Kühmeier and you have a first-rate night out.  More or less.

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.  Wiener Staatsoper, 3/11/2010.  Production by Marco Arturo Marelli, conducted by Ivor Bolton with Genia Kühmeier (Pamina), Jeanette Vecchione (Queen of the Night), Norbert Ernst (Tamino), Markus Werba (Papageno), Kwangchul Youn (Sarastro).

Marco Arturo Marelli’s abstract Zauberflöte production has a few things going for it: a most excellent dragon, some pretty lighting (sometimes too dark) and a refusal to overwhelm the characters with visual effects (cough Julie Taymor at the Met cough).  But that’s about it.  The set hails from the era of the big white cube, but features many skewed planes.  Its lack of right angles made me want to go hug a bookshelf.

But more seriously it lacks profundity or any clear vision of the piece, awkwardly mixing humor and seriousness.  There’s a grab bag of ideas–the three boys as mini-Mozarts, some Masonic stuff, the obligatory Big Black Box o’ Mystery, Papageno frequently hiding in a mini-version of the big set–but what it says about good and evil, enlightenment, and all that jazz beats me.  Maybe it was clearer when the production originally appeared, but last night any transcendence was going to have to happen from the music alone.

Luckily that turned out well.  Ivor Bolton coaxed a lean HIP-ish sound out of the reduced orchestra, and conducted with both an excellent sense of dramatic pacing and sensitivity for details.  Despite a shortage of glamorous voices, everything was together, of a piece, and, for a repertory evening, impressively clean and well-balanced.  Both the orchestra and chorus sounded great.

There were two vocal standouts: foremost Genia Kühmeier’s pure, expressive, and transparent Pamina.  She has a clear kind of soprano in the Janowitz model, not a large voice and sometimes squeezed at the top, but very beautiful.  Kwangchul Youn’s lyric Sarastro lacked the cavernous dark bass usual for this role, but his warm tone and musicality more than made up for this. (If you think René Pape is a fine Sarastro, you would like Youn; if you think Pape is too lightweight you probably wouldn’t.)

In other roles, Markus Werba proved a perfectly OK, rather aggressive Papageno who failed to make me laugh until well into Act 2 but didn’t irritate either.  Jeanette Vecchione has the notes for the Queen of the Night’s second aria, but lacks the dramatic timing for the recitative of the first, and sounded a bit too gentle and sweet.  Norbert Ernst was a largish-voiced Tamino and struggled with the higher parts of “Dies Bildnis,” but sounded more at ease elsewhere, if not exciting.  As usual, the smaller roles were all sung well, though the Three Ladies seemed to be competing with one another for volume as well as for Tamino.

Except for Kühmeier and Youn it was hardly a Sternstunde, and the incoherent production and long stretches of dialogue turned dull in Act 2.  But between the conducting and the usual “Mozart, duh,” a worthy night for the Staatsoper.

Next: Royal Concertgebouw on Sunday morning at the Musikverein.  Gaaaaah, early.  I love me some Tchaik 4 but believe the only appropriate way to experience it before lunch is in an orchestra rehearsal.  When you’re playing it yourself.  This will be interesting.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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1 Comment

  1. You know Zerbinetta, my general experience with Mozart in Vienna has been very similar to what you describe here. Spot "international" casting but generally high quality ensemble singing, reasonably coherent drama – within the confines of the production – and very good or better orchestral playing. Very different form other parts of the repertoire. A few years ago I saw a consistently high level Zauberflote even in the absence of any stars of even reasonably well know singers (I can't even remember any of the singers though I'm don't think any of them were at the level of a Kuhmeier or Youn – who happened to be, somewhat surprisingly, a very good Leporello a little bit earlier. By contrast, several day later I saw a Rosenkavalier with Garanca's ideal Octavian and a very good Marschallin from Debbie Voigt (?!?!?) surrounded by performances which I hesitate to complement by calling them mailed-in, uninspired conducting and sloppy orchestral playing. True, the production is about as old as the Met's (though I think its holding up better) but that antiquity hasn't prevented a much higher level of performance in a comparably aged Figaro. They just seem to get the Mozart right more often than other things – even a DRK.

    Enjoy the RCO. It is a little early but they're always great and last year I heard Jansons conduct a superb Tchaik 4 – my favorite – with the BRSO at Carnegie.