Showing posts with label The Magic Flute. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Magic Flute. 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 But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated.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 want...to 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.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My first opera...

I've enjoyed taking a trip down an operatic memory lane for Sinfini, plus talking to a range of celebs about their first experiences of opera and what got them hooked - among them ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky, actor Henry Goodman and comedian Rainer Hersch. Read the whole thing here: http://sinfinimusic.com/uk/features/2013/02/my-first-opera-curtain-up/



What follows is a further ramble on the topic...

Thinking back, I owe my whole opera thing to my parents, who never talked down to me about music when I was a kid. They seemed to know how to encourage an enthusiasm without piling on undue pressure and when I picked up that Magic Flute box (tempted by the picture: left) and wanted to know what was in it, my mum showed me how to follow the translated text as if it was the most natural thing in the world (it was the classic Klemperer recording, in German, without dialogue). It was good of them to put up with my unfortunate singalongaluciapopp tendencies, too.



I’m not surprised they bought me an alternative. This was easier: just one LP, in English, much of it positively designed for singing along. It was The Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten: the story of a group of children and their nanny who rescue a small boy chimney sweep from his abusive employer. It was easy to follow and impossible to forget. Nobody ever seemed to perform it, though. At the time, I had no idea there could be anything sinister in a song about a boy in a bath and I still find myself humming that syncopated, swingy waltz melody now and then. I’ve never once seen this opera live. A footnote: one of the child singers on that recording turned up in my year at university and we used to have a whale of a time playing violin and piano music together (he’d swapped the voice for the fiddle long before). I enjoyed the notion that I’d cut my musical teeth by inadvertently listening to my duo partner singing.

I fell for Eugene Onegin on the car radio, but seeing it in the theatre aged about ten (starring a young soprano named Kiri Somethingorother) left me colder than I'd hoped it would. It was all a bit static, it was hard to hear the words and I couldn't work out why on earth Tatyana fell for Onegin in any case, as he wasn't exactly an appealing kind of chap. (Right: Kiri as she probably looked in those days...)

Eventually live performance did enchant me – but not as you might expect. It was comedy, courtesy of English National Opera. The gods in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld perching on their clouds; Lesley Garrett stripping off as Adele in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus; and above all, the sight of my father reduced to complete screeching, weeping helplessness over the nuns in drag in Rossini’s Count Ory. This could only happen in the theatre. And when it happened, there was no point resisting. 

Interesting to see that while a lot of my interviewees cite Mozart and Puccini as their ways in to opera, Ed Gardner thinks those aren't such a good place to start. He plumps straight for Shostakovich and Janacek. 
 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Strewth! Papageno gets a proposal

Duncan Rock and Rhian Lois as Papageno and Papagena

So it's opening night at ENO, they're doing The Magic Flute and at the moment Papageno counts to three in case a girl will agree to marry him before he hangs himself...someone does. A lady in the second row put up a hand and said "All right!"

The hunky baritone Duncan Rock, recipient of the RPS's new Chilcott Award (in memory of the late soprano Susan Chilcott), kept admirably calm and carried on, but made sure to give this unexpected fiancee a round of applause at the end of the opera. 

The Magic Flute - the fairy-tale that becomes magically deeper the lighter it is - had meanwhile fizzed by in a feast of that gorgeous Mozartness that has made this my favourite opera always and forever and confirmed it in that status yet again. In short, it evokes the way music can protect us through life's most terrible trials, and the way those trials strengthen the bonds between lovers. Never has it felt so true. Its profundity within that feathery touch is comparable, to my ears, only to the comedies of Shakespeare.

It's the last revival of Nicholas Hytner's classic production that has run since 1988. Our friends at What's On Stage suggest that something interesting may be lurking in the works by way of a new take. We're watching that space.

Meanwhile the well-chosen cast made the most of the fun, with plenty freedom to turn it their own way - "Strewth!" shouts this very Australian Papageno, spotting the snake. Shawn Mathey is a full-toned Tamino, Elena Xanthoudakis a powerful and charismatic Pamina, Robert Lloyd holding the stage and the low notes as the stringent 18th-century patriarch that this production makes of Sarastro. Rhian Lois as a Welsh Papagena joined Rock for the delicious upward ride in the Papageno family nest, complete with seatbelt [pictured above - photo credit: Alastair Muir/ENO].

Luxury casting for the Three Ladies with Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen. The Three Boys were superb. Everyone's favourite character, The Queen of the Night, was an admirably ferocious and focused Kathryn Lewek. And Boris the Bear - one of four cuddly furballs who pad out of the woods to enjoy Tamino's flute recital - is on Twitter as @abearnamedboris and has his own blog...

And in the pit, an auspicious presence: Nicholas Collon, kicking off the new season with his ENO house debut. The Magic Flute is no small ask, but he seemed nothing daunted; the pace never faltered and neither did the sparkle. If I have one little suggestion, it's to give it a tad more time and space here and there to let us breathe the emotion ever so slightly.

It's Friday afternoon, so here is a mega-Mozartian Friday Historical: The Magic Flute conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1937. Click through to Youtube for the full cast.