A dark, but human Magic Flute (though not quite as originally announced)
Those dreaded words, “The management regrets to inform you,” when pronounced from in front of the curtain before the performance begins, can be the cause of great disappointment. But they can also transform an otherwise rather predictable evening in the theater into an experience more resembling a tightrope act at the circus. Will the understudy remember the blocking? Will the understudy follow the conductor’s tempos? Will the costumes fit? The audience holds it breath...
This was the feeling at last Saturday’s performance of Die Zauberflöte, when both Rebecca Evans (Pamina) and Will Hartmann (Tamino) were ill. Pamina was sung by the American soprano Katie van Kooten, whose other roles at Covent Garden this season include Kate Pinkerton and Magda in La Rondine. The role of Tamino was taken by the Scottish tenor Robert Murray, who had been slated to sing that evening the role of the First Priest. (The role of the First Priest was, in turn, taken by Andrew H. Sinclair, bringing the total number of understudies on the stage to three.)
As Pamina, Kooten made a very favorable impression. Her voice has a piercing intensity and a fast, biting vibrato, but with a dark quality that gives a depth even to her highest notes. Her strongest point is not long legato lines; in fact, at times her phrasing in slow numbers seemed almost choppy. But, to this audience member at least, this refusal to indulge in a luxurious lyrical line was not a failing but an interesting interpretive decision, lending a dramatic force to Pamina’s moments of despair. Kooten’s Pamina was no wilting flower, but a strong, defiant woman even in her darkest hour. In “Ach, ich fühl’s” in particular her vocal characterization was complimented by what seemed, at first, to be an oddly brisk tempo from Charles Mackerras. Having not seen any other performances of this run, I cannot say if this tempo was specifically a response by Mackerras to Kooten’s voice or not; regardless, it was a happy combination.
In comparison, Murray was a less impressive Tamino. Although he is a credible actor with a strong stage presence, his voice has a wide wobble and a nasal quality, and he had an unfortunate tendency to sit above the pitch. To be fair, his voice became better and better as the evening wore on, and so I suspect the rather unpleasant singing of the beginning of the opera (especially “Dies Bildnis”) was simply the result of nerves. But at the same time, Murray did not seem to have the voice to communicate Tamino’s youth and vigor.
This was especially striking next to Simon Keenlyside as Papageno, whose warm, lush baritone conveyed not only youth and vigor, but also authority and no small amount of sensuality. The contrast between Papageno and Tamino’s singing in this performance made the famously awkward Papageno-Pamina love duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe,” even more awkward—the sense that the wrong characters were in love was, in this number, overwhelming. Keenlyside also displayed a real gift for physical comedy, and his interpretation of Papageno’s lighter songs displayed a refreshing freedom, bringing out the words in a natural, unforced way. All in all, this was one of the most intelligent and entertaining Papagenos I’ve ever seen.
As the Queen of the Night, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola was impressive. Although there was some flubbed coloratura in her Act 1 aria, in Act 2 “Der Hölle Rache” was technically flawless. Could I be forgiven, though, for wanting to hear a bit more power, and a bit more rage in this role? Jan-Hendrik Rootering was a muffled, sluggish Sarastro, dragging his way through “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” as if he was bored. The rest of the cast was quite strong, with especially fine contributions from Gail Pearson as Papagena and Gillian Webster, Clarissa Meek, and Yvonne Howard as the Three Ladies. The Covent Garden chorus sounded wonderful.
The production is utterly beautiful. While watching, I was struck with the thought that the original director David McVicar and the designer John Macfarlane must have first imagined striking images, then built the production around them; again and again we were presented with carefully crafted and perfectly balanced stage pictures, sometime simple, sometimes elaborate, but always stunning. The overwhelming darkness of the set, with its black walls and black floor moodily lit by lighting designer Paule Constable, served not to make the opera unduly gloomy, but rather as a background to set off these images, like the candlelit paintings by Georges de la Tour reproduced in the program book.
A few examples: Sarastro’s first appearance was as an imposing school-master, looming over a little boy hard at work in front of a model of the sun, while a little girl sits with nothing to do off to one side. Monostatos appears as a grotesque eighteenth-century French aristocrat, surrounded by a crowd of mute slaves of different sizes, all dressed exactly like him. Papagena is finally presented to Papageno wheeled in on a huge bed, surrounded by a dozen small children. The trial by fire is represented by Tamino and Pamina standing still, surrounded by spastic dancers meant to portray the flames, but also resembling souls tormented in hell.
The production’s interpretation of the opera was thus communicated through the beautiful images, rather that at their expense. Admittedly, some of the choices confused me. (I still haven’t figured out why Papagena first appears to Papageno disguised not as an old lady but as a twenty-first-century prostitute.) But at other moments the message was clearer. In the final tableau, for instance, the chorus appeared as peasants, paired off into husbands and wives and surrounded by children, with almost no sign of the old men of the Temple of Wisdom’s brotherhood. The sheer beauty of the stage picture made the point better than a less subtle director would have—Tamino needed to overcome not only the trials, but also the brotherhood of the initiated themselves. In this way this production pulled off the feat of resisting the mystic/masonic mumbo-jumbo of the libretto, without simply turning the whole evening into a fairy-tale joke. This Zauberflöte managed to be both profound and human.