‘Flute’ Wins The Heart

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The New York Sun

Last summer, the Salzburg Festival featured Graham Vick’s production of “The Magic Flute,” and a strange one it was. You’ve heard of Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere”? This production had a staircase to nowhere, and an old-folks home, and many other curious concepts. You could recognize Mozart’s music plainly enough, but what were you looking at?

The Festival ditched that production after a single season, importing Pierre Audi’s production from the Netherlands Opera (with adaptations). This one’s more like it — not because the production is more “traditional,” but because it’s more sensible, conforming to what Mozart and his librettist, Herr Schikaneder, had in mind.

What do you want a “Magic Flute” to be? The words you think of are whimsical, colorful, imaginative, surprising, magical, fantastic. And this is what Mr. Audi’s “Flute” is. I dare say it wins the heart. Donald and Jeanne Kahn, who paid for this show, have rendered many services to the Salzburg Festival. This one is outstanding.

I will give you just a taste of the goings-on: The monster with which Tamino struggles is a Chinese-style dragon with headlights for eyes. Papageno enters the scene in a little, circus-like car. The Three Boys ride in an old-fashioned aeroplane. Sarastro’s lions practically outdo Julie Taymor’s on Broadway. And when Papageno’s pipes enchant Monostatos and the slaves, causing them to dance, you are enchanted along with them, almost wanting to dance yourself.

(I said almost.)

Oh, this production has a little nudity, for a Salzburg opera without nudity would be like a restaurant without plates, or something. Rest assured that there is nothing square about Mr. Audi’s production — it is just reasonable and good.

As before, the Festival has assembled a marvelous “Flute” cast, headed, you might say, by René Pape, the German bass. He has been Sarastro in every Salzburg “Flute” since 1991, when Solti conducted. And you can’t blame the Festival for wanting no other.Mr. Pape is the ultimate basso cantante, and he was his bankable self on Saturday night. The holy aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” was radiant as ever.

Diana Damrau, the starry German coloratura, has taken over the Queen of the Night, and she dazzled, as you must in this role.She missed a few notes — more than her usual quotient — but it barely mattered. And, amazingly, she proved a gripping actress in this role, which is one that can be unintentionally silly.

Returning as Pamina was a local girl, the soprano Genia Kühmeier, who shares a distinction with Angelika Kirchschlager (a mezzo): They are the leading Salzburgers in music. (It would be sort of unfair to count Mozart.) On Saturday night, Ms. Kühmeier was clear, pure, and lyrical, as you would have expected.And her technical control seems unshakable.

Last year’s Tamino was Michael Schade, a Mozart tenor almost without equal. But he is busy in the title role of “La Clemenza di Tito” this summer, and Tamino is Paul Groves, an American. He did very well, singing freely and feelingly. But as an actor, he tends to be shouty, stagy, and stiff. You have to give him credit for earnestness, however.

The Austrian baritone Markus Werba has come back as Papageno, this time wearing dreadlocks. Whatever his appearance, he is a likable, enjoyable Papageno. In the early going on Saturday night, Mr. Werba was not exactly a sticker for accuracy — when it came to either notes or rhythm — but he settled down to give a commendable performance.

Burkhard Ulrich, a German tenor, sang Monostatos (a Moor) in blackface, something I doubt would ever be permitted in America. Regardless, he executed this role superbly, both musically and theatrically. Franz Grundheber, a German baritone, sang the part of the First Priest with tremendous dignity and authority. And the Lithuanian soprano Irena Bespalovaite was just right as An Old Wife and Papagena (a split role).

Once more, New Zealand’s Simon O’Neill blew his tenor trumpet as one of the Knights. And, once more, he overwhelmed everything around him. You could barely tell that other singers, not to mention the Vienna Philharmonic, were making a sound as he was singing. But the voice is so splendid, you really don’t mind.

How about the Three Ladies, who serve the Queen of the Night? They sang with such beauty, skill, and coordination, the Andrews Sisters would have wept. And a trio of kids from the Vienna Boys Choir piped charmingly as the little guides and advisers in that aeroplane.

Presiding from the pit was Riccardo Muti, the Italian Stallion, late of the Scala Opera House. He was competent, if not exemplary. Singers and orchestra had a little breakdown at one point in Act II, but all recovered nicely. The Vienna Philharmonic was in good shape. And you know who was especially impressive? The flutist, which was fortunate, seeing as this was “The Magic Flute.”

The guy on the glockenspiel wasn’t bad either.

Until August 31 (for more information, call 011-43-662-8045-500).

The New York Sun

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