Showing posts with label Die Zauberflote. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Die Zauberflote. Show all posts

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday historical: Fritz Wunderlich sings Tamino

Last night left me convinced (as if I needed convincing) that this is the most beautiful aria for tenor ever composed. What a good excuse to listen to Fritz Wunderlich singing it.

McBurney's Mozart is a Flute for our times

Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Luxor for Mozart lovers

I've been in Egypt - for longer than expected. A few hours before our flight was due, a fearsome, hot wind sprang up from the Sahara and visibility was reduced to pea-souper levels by whirling sand. The incoming plane diverted to Hurghada and after a very long afternoon playing Scrabble in Luxor Airport we found ourselves facing an extra night away. We didn't get back until yesterday evening, so unfortunately I missed both a vital interview and the Proms launch. But April showers and the news that there's to be a Wallace and Gromit Prom have assured me I'm finally back in Blighty.

For the whole week, touring Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, I have had one piece of music on the brain. It is Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. The connection of this extraordinary and still almost unfathomable opera to the symbols and temples of ancient Egypt seems stronger than I'd anticipated. It is impossible to appreciate the full marvel of those ancient carvings, paintings and hieroglyphics without seeing the real thing - the widespread reproductions and tourist tat we see here give no idea of them, any more than a cack-handed copy of a Rembrandt would of an actual portrait by the master. And when you're there, immersed in it, the impact of those surroundings conjures an atmosphere that feeds forward by thousands of years to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Mozart/Schikaneder's symbols? You don't have to look far in the hieroglyphics to find images of a three-headed serprent, which might have attacked Tamino; nor for images of creatures half human, half animal - mostly gods, of course. Is Papageno perhaps an Egyptian god in disguise? Either way, he would have had a field day with the Egyptian birdlife.

Tour the Luxor Museum and the image of the incredibly beautiful face of Thutmosis III brings to mind the perfect balance of Tamino's great aria - Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön indeed. The vast, jagged-cheekboned image of Akhenaten seems to conjure Sarastro.

Could this be Sarastro's temple?

Or, even more likely, it might be Karnak, where Papageno could easily be lost amid the forest of "papyrus" columns...

Here, too, Tamino and Pamina might walk together through their trials of fire and water. They are often staged with Pamina just behind Tamino, one hand on his shoulder....

Such Mozartian fantasy prods at the grey matter (or what's left of it) and leaves you marvelling at how much there is to learn of this other world - so distant yet, in its imagery, also so close, for it's clear that neither owls nor people have changed all that much since 1500BC.

My friends keep asking "Is it safe?" One taxi driver summed up the current Egyptian situation neatly: "Cairo: problem. Luxor: no problem." (Basic Arabic, lesson 1: Mishmushkela = no problem.) The pleasure over the revolution is split, with the younger generation happier than the over-60s. A young man I spoke to in the Luxor souk expressed surprise that tourists seem more reluctant to come to Luxor now than they did when Mubarak was in power, since he considers things much improved. The scenes around the petrol stations told a story of their own: an older taxi driver raised his hands in frustration as we passed a jungle of minibuses - "No Mubarak, no petrol!" (But then, once upon a time, people also argued that Mussolini got the trains to run on time - you know the syndrome...)

The elections are coming up in about a month; candidate posters and the odd rally or two dab their way across the town centre. As tourists, though, Tamino and I never felt threatened or unwelcome in any way; quite the reverse. You get hassled by people wanting to sell you things, or by demands for bakshish for small and unsolicited services; but it's all good-natured and, in our experience, never threatening.
There's a slight sense of desperation across the town. Since the revolution, tourism, on which Luxor absolutely depends, has dropped; as a consequence airlines have been cutting back on flights and even if tourists want to go there, it's not as easy as it used to be to find a flight on the day you want. This means tourism is reduced even further. The cruise ships that progress along the Nile were plentiful, but on their decks inhabitants seemed, from the shores, sparse. 

Truly lovely hotels are therefore rather good value. We were at the Jolie Ville Maritim, booked about a month ago via Thomas Cook for a rate, including flights, that wouldn't go very far towards a UK "staycation". Run by a Swiss manager who seems to have left no stone unturned in his efforts to welcome his clientele, it's a real oasis, well removed from the hectic town centre. The food is terrific, the gardens gorgeous, the atmosphere friendly - we enjoyed an unexpectedly rewarding social time with many fascinating people among the guests. And for recharging the batteries, relaxing and soaking up some very serious sun, I can't imagine anywhere more lovely.

Tamino and I needed our break, having undergone trials by metaphorical fire and water of late. We are deeply grateful to Isis, Osiris and Wolfang Amadeus. Here is Solti with a tribute.

[UPDATE: A Musical Vision has a fascinating post about Die Zauberflöte - "Mozart's magical mystery tour de force". Well worth a visit.]

Triumph!  Triumph, triumph, du edles Paar!    
Besieget hast du die Gefahr!  
Der Isis Weihe ist nun dein.   
Kommt, kommt, kommt, kommt,   
Tretet in den Tempel ein!