A Universe of Fantasy: Die Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Mozart – Die Zauberflöte

Sarastro – Andrea Mastroni
Tamino – Dovlet Nurgeldiyev
Pamina – Elbenita Kajtazi
Sprecher – Alin Anca
Priester – Hiroshi Amako
Königin der Nacht – Jessica Pratt
Erste Dame – Hellen Kwon
Zweite Dame – Dorottya Láng
Dritte Dame – Marta Świderska
Papageno – Jonathan McGovern
Monostatos – Peter Gaillard
Papagena – Katharina Konradi
Erster Geharnischter – Jürgen Sacher
Zweiter Geharnischter – Ang Du
Drei Knaben – Solisten des Knabenchores Chorakademie Dortmund

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Kent Nagano.
Stage director – Jette Steckel

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Friday, January 4th, 2019.

A new year is a time to reflect on what has been and what is to come.  Jette Steckel’s 2016 staging of Die Zauberflöte takes that idea of looking back on life as a starting point for her vision of the work.  As the overture runs to its conclusion, an ambulance crew rush to the front row and pull out an old man.  It transpires that that old man is Tamino who is taken on stage and walks into the light.  For the next three hours, we see his journey as he develops from a boy, to a man, to old age.  The opening dialogue is given by two boys dressed as Tamino and Papageno and it’s clear that this is a relationship with a very long history.  There was something deeply moving about this imagery, particularly accompanied by Mozart’s glorious music.

Die Zauberflöte von W. A. Mozart
Photo: © Arno Declair

Steckel gives us a staging of phenomenal technical virtuosity.  The set consists of a half-dozen or so light curtains projecting a range of images and colours, from an opening door to prison bars for Pamina.  Both the Königin der Nacht and Sarastro sing their arias from the pit with their faces transformed into a light show on stage.  The effect was staggering, giving them precisely an other-worldly presence just as they should have, reinforcing their dominant effect on the action.  Yet, what Steckel never forgets is that this is a story about flesh and blood people.  It would be so easy for the technical wizardry to take over and overwhelm the singers, but it never does.  It enhances and builds the narrative into a magical world of fantasy that feels so exactly right.  Of course, it helps that she has some fantastic singing-actors at her disposal – Jonathan McGovern’s Papageno is very much the glue that holds this staging together with sheer personality, both in his acting and his singing.

Photo: © Arno Declair

Steckel’s staging isn’t quite perfect though, in that she doesn’t completely answer the questions she poses herself.  I wasn’t convinced by the dénouement.   We see Tamino and Pamina going through their trials as old versions of themselves.  It left me with too many ‘whys?’  Is it that they were separated their whole life and only found each other in old age?  Or was there something else?  Similarly, the closing tableau, rather than a happy ever after, consisted of the chorus walking around in a circle while the Königin der Nacht and Sarastro were hoisted up over the scene.  Perhaps the idea was that balance had been restored to the universe, but it felt underexplored and added on.  Still, the sheer imaginativeness of Steckel’s vision, the fantasy and humanity that she found in the piece, and her ability to actually bring that to life on stage were most impressive.  Particularly so in ‘ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ where Papageno found it possible to create the sound of the glockenspiel almost from thin air.  This idea of something magical, of music being in the air was so uplifting.  Indeed, as an audience we were encouraged to join in with the chorus’s line in ‘das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön’, bringing us to the heart of the work and making us feel part of this fantastic universe.

Photo: © Arno Declair

This might have been a mainly house cast and the quality of the singing was extremely good, reflecting the high standards the house sets for itself.  Elbenita Kajtazi.  Make a note of this name because this lady has a glorious natural instrument.  Her Pamina was ravishingly sung.  The registers are absolutely integrated throughout and her ‘ach, ich fühl’s’ defied gravity, just in the way that it should.  There’s a crystalline beauty to the tone that is so even and so attractive.  I did leave with a sense that perhaps her vocalism was still slightly anonymous, perhaps needing to dig deeper into the words, but make no mistake, Kajtazi is a serious talent.  Dovlet Nurgeldiyev was a mellifluous Tamino.  Again, the registers were all absolutely integrated and he sang his portrait aria with an easy line and admirable legato.  Jessica Pratt spat fireworks as the Königin der Nacht, bringing a sense of burning anger to ‘der Hölle Rache’.  Her experience in bel canto meant that she turned the corners nicely and demonstrated an impeccable trill.  I did feel a sense that the tone has a tendency to spread, but it must be admitted that singing from the pit wasn’t the optimal place for the voice to carry, even if the visual effects that were produced on stage definitely made it worth it.  Andrea Mastroni sang Sarastro’s music with smoky, velvety tone, finding genuine beauty as he descended to the depths.

Photo: © Arno Declair

McGovern was a winning Papageno.  The sheer sense of personality he found in the role made it seem that he was born to sing it, which he most certainly did in very good German.  He took us on a journey from happiness to heartbreak – his suicide scene was devastating to watch.  Throughout, his handsome, healthy baritone gave a great deal of pleasure.  We had a well-trained trio of boys from the Chorakademie Dortmund, and a nicely-blended trio of ladies from Hellen Kwon, Dorottya Láng, Marta Świderska.  Kwon finding some metal in the tone on the top line, while Świderska’s full and resonant contralto brought warmth to the bottom line.  All the remaining roles were very well sung, in particular Katharina Konradi’s vivacious Papagena.  The chorus sang with big, bold tone although the sopranos were a bit on the blowzy side.  Kent Nagano led a lithe, athletic reading with an orchestra on terrific form.  Strings played with minimal vibrato and the brass was deliciously raspy – the opening chords revealing a beguiling depth of tone.  The string sound always felt transparent and light, bringing out so many hidden details in the orchestral texture.  His tempi felt utterly natural throughout.  Ornamentation was notable by its absence and the dialogue was cut to an absolute minimum.

Photo: © Arno Declair

This was a magical evening in the theatre.  It was so well sung, across the board, and genuinely lived through the clarity of the text and such dramatically vital performances.  Steckel’s staging was visually stunning and fully succeeded in bringing out just that sense of wonder and fantasy that the work requires.  It might not have been perfect, but had it been perfect, it would have been less human and humanity is a quality Steckel’s staging has in spades.  As the three boys said to Papageno, ‘man lebt nur einmal’ and this really was a life-enhancing evening.

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