Sunday, 21 January 2018

Staatsoper Hannover: Die Zauberflöte

16 January 2018

The idea that Die Zauberflöte is a ‘children’s opera’ is of course a ridiculous one, even if, in many respects, it ends up being about children (an idea that was picked up and developed in Goethe’s aborted attempt at a zweiter Teil). Nonetheless it seems—in Germany especially—often to be the first opera children get to see, and it was certainly encouraging to hear the lobbies of  Staatsoper Hannover resound to the pitter-patter of teeny feet as local children flooded the place for this second performance of Frank Hilbrich’s new production.

Die Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)

Things didn’t get off to a good start when a technical problem delayed the start by 20 minutes, but the centrality of children in the production was immediately emphasised during the overture. 

(click to enlarge)
Staged overtures usually, of course, inspire a fair amount of eye-rolling. Here it proves joyous and difficult to resist, however, as a group of garishly attired kids on a revolve enthusiastically mime scraping and huffing and puffing their way through the piece on a variety of instruments.

Before that, we had seen Tamino clamber into a bed far downstage left. He then wakes up in his opening aria to grapple with a cuddly snake subsequent torn to pieces by the three ladies. I wondered whether the whole thing was being staged as his dream (the first subheading in a vaguely updated synopsis in the programme suggested that might have been the case) but if it was, it was hardly a fact that was made obvious beyond that opening gambit.

There is consistency, however, in the way the central role of the children is further underlined when the troupe of kids return to the stage each time the Three Boys (here three girls) appear. At the end we even see Sarastro and his entourage—in stiff plastic wigs and grey Bond-villain smocks—musicked into submission by them. This brotherhood clearly prefers a Land ohne Musik; in the Act 1 finale they dump instrument cases into a hole in the stage. 

Ania Vegry (Pamina) and Pawel Brozek (Monostatos)
(Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
In an interview in the programme, Hilbrich (if I understand him correctly) places music into a broader historical and societal context when he argues that opera itself played a similar role for Germany, especially during the country’s development during the 19th century, as music does for the characters in Die Zauberflöte.

And these ideas by themselves are far from bad. The problem is that the staging itself is messy and extremely poorly focused, throwing in far too many further ideas that one struggles to keep track of, let alone unravel, interpret and make any sense of. 

Stefan Heyne’s set features a pointy-textured gold  back wall and a central revolve with a cylinder that can be raised or lowered; Julia Müer’s costumes mix austere greys with the garish and ghastly. 

The whole thing is as ugly as it sounds. The production’s tone, too, is unpredictable, its occasional attempts to impose a dramatic realism distinctly jarring: a self-harming (I think) Queen of the Night, a particularly handsy Monastatos and charred corpses revealed unzipped from body bags for the trial by fire mingle uneasily with the celebration of joyful, exuberant youth we get elsewhere. 

There wasn’t much good news musically either at this performance, a fact clearly not helped by the (unannounced) replacement of the first night’s Tamino and Papageno. Martin Homrich took over as Tamino and sang with an impressive heroic voice which, though far from ideally controlled for Mozart, could well be one to watch as it develops in bigger repertoire. Byung Kweon Jun made an eminently likeable Papageno, but both he and Homrich required a fair bit of help from an audible prompter.

Matthias Winckhler & Simon Bode, the first-night Papageno & Tamino (left & centre), with Tobias Schabel (right, Sarastro) (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
Ania Vegry made a fine, moving Pamina, her performance blossoming into an outstanding ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’. Dorothea Maria Marx offered a very respectable Queen of the Night, able to negotiate the role’s stratospheric demands cleanly. Tobias Schabel’s Sarastro (at one point removing his smock to reveal Amfortas-like bandages) lacked vocal authority, but there was a reassuringly sparky Papagena from Yiva Stenberg.

Her duet with Jun, though, was just one of several occasions where pit and stage threatened to part ways. The conductor Valtteri Rauhalammi did a good job of rectifying those errors, and there was certainly pleasure to be derived from the playing of the orchestra, but such synchronisation issues and scrappiness should never really have been happening in the first place.  

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