BERLIN – The boos began at intermission. What might have been an exciting production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden ultimately did not justify another take on the most-performed opera in the German-speaking world.
The main casualty was the withdrawal earlier this month of conductor Franz Welser-Möst, citing knee problems. Anna Prohaska, who was to sing Pamina, also called in sick at the last minute. For all the imagination and technical daring of Yuval Sharon’s new staging, as seen at the Feb. 17 premiere, the audience was not left enlightened.
The director casts the main characters as marionettes, literally suspending them from above stage with neon green straps. In the final scene, a puppet show reveals that the drama has in reality been brought to life by a group of children.
The concept of a theater-within-the-theater is intriguing enough but also not new to the opera world (Stefan Herheim being its foremost champion). Most of all, the viewer was left worrying whether the singers would emerge with their collar bones intact.
Sets and costumes create a comic-book aesthetic that is by turns fresh and chaotic. Pamina and Tamino cavort in giant red moon boots, while the three boys sail above in costumes that resemble oxygen tanks. The flute is represented as a plastic rocket, and the trials of fire and water take place within the walls of a modern kitchen.
In an inspired twist, Monostatos is depicted as a robot, his realm a black-and-white nightmare where cat-like dancers twirl mechanically. The temple of Sarastro is all order and geometry, but it is implied that not only virtue reigns when the chorus that closes the first act emerges as a group of mechanical bots.
Sharon creates surreal distance from the work by recording large tracts of dialogue through the voice of a child accompanied by sound effects such as chirping birds. But the result is mostly disorienting as Papageno converses with a loudspeaker. By the second act, the effect loses its mystique altogether.
The appearance of the Queen of the Night against a black sun is impressive, while Sarastro sings “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” directly to the audience, breaking from the frame of the stage-within-a-stage. But for all its meta-dimensional ambitions, the production lacks a sense of coherent vision.
The ascent of Pamina and Papageno from Monostatos’ realm into a blue sky during the duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” made possible by soaring video projections, is impressive but seems a pale imitation of the Komische Oper Berlin’s 2012 staging that blended animation with live action. The Staatsoper, meanwhile, still has in its repertoire a production recreating 19th-century sets by the German architect and landscape painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel (which will be given four performances later this season, April 26-May 1).
But the real thorn in the evening’s side was the conductor, Alondra de la Parra, a relative newcomer to opera. Tempi were rushed, and phrasing lacked polish even in the overture. Most of all, she struggled to coordinate the singers, particularly in ensembles.
The three ladies (Adriane Queiroz, Christina Damian, and Anja Schlosser) rarely made their entrances together in the third scene, an effect that was all the more jarring given Queiroz’s imprecise German diction. The three boys (soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchor) created a more homogeneous unit.
Kwangchul Youn brought a rich, grounded bass to the role of Sarastro but was never given a chance to breathe with the orchestra. Tuuli Takala nailed the quicksilver coloratura passages of the Queen of the Night but – particularly as she was suspended above the stage – might have profited from steadier guidance.
Julian Prégardien gave an elegant performance as Tamino but lacked strong high notes. Covering for Prohaska, Serena Sáenz Molinero impressed as Pamina, even if her tone was a bit too bright and soubrette-like for the role. Florian Hoffmann was a stand-out as Monostatos, Sarah Aristidou a charming-enough Papagena (truth be told, it was hard to take the scene seriously when hot pink stuffed bunny ears descend on the bird-catchers rather than a gaggle of children).
It was ironically the actor Florian Teichtmeister as Papageno who nearly stole the show, bringing the production down to earth with his sharp comic timing. It hardly mattered that he does not have operatic training; this was a performance of unforced authenticity that was lacking over the course of the evening.
The audience did not spare him boos at the curtain call, however, perhaps displacing the cause of their frustration. If anything, this new style reflects the extravagance and turbulence of today’s opera industry, in which the same works are staged over and over again, the most talented directors are hard-pressed to be at the top of their game, and young conductors are pushed into repertoire for which they are not ready.
Die Zauberflöte continues at Staatsoper Unter den Linden through March 16. For tickets and information, go here.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.