The Bregenz Festival's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Photo © Bregenzer Festspiele/Anja Köhler
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Widescreen, blockbuster Mozart at the Bregenz Festival’s The Magic Flute

A small Austrian town tucked almost against the Swiss and German borders on the magnificent Lake Constance, Bregenz has claimed a place on the cultural map.

The Magic Flute
Bregenz Festival, Austria

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is notoriously difficult to stage. But a work that is a director’s graveyard when trapped in the confines of a proscenium theatre becomes a playground when released into its natural element(s), as David Pountney proves in his giddy, joyous and thoroughly over-the-top production for the outdoor stage of the Bregenz Festival.

A small Austrian town tucked almost against the Swiss and German borders on the magnificent Lake Constance, Bregenz has claimed a place on the cultural map thanks to a floating stage, created each year for a summer festival whose centrepiece is a single opera. So elaborate are these stages – images of Richard Jones’s 1999 Ballo in Maschera set made front pages across the world, while Johannes Leiacker’s surrealist Tosca was the backdrop to scenes for Bond film The Quantum of Solace – that the operas each run for two seasons before being replaced.

Now in its second year, Poutney’s Magic Flute is an exuberant, cartoonish contrast to recent more brutalist visuals. Designer Johan Engels has created an enchanted world that reveals new secrets throughout the evening. Cartoonish without being kitsch, charming without being overly precious, the set is constructed around a revolving mound – a globe that rotates to reveal both Papageno’s world of forests (which sprout suddenly before our eyes) and Sarastro’s Masonic kingdom. Flanking it are three giant creatures – feet in the lake, heads in the clouds – whose bodies provide pillars for a walkway high above the stage, strung between their toothy jaws.

If ever an opera was made for the outdoors it’s The Magic Flute. Papageno’s birds are never far from action that also involves trials by water and fire and two warring monarchs whose rival allegiances are to night and day. Rather than grapple with the knotty Masonic subtext of Mozart’s opera, Poutney reinvents it as a creation myth – a glorious, anarchic tale complete with giant turtle who paddles in from stage right carrying characters on his back, Crusader knights, and more fireworks than are perhaps strictly necessary.

At times Poutney does get a little trigger-happy with his toybox, inserting a battle of Hollywood proportions into the Overture in which Spiderman-esque acrobats with a good line in explosive whizz-bangery do battle with the Queen of the Night’s minions, but it’s ultimately less intrusive than subtler but more pernicious directorial readings that superimpose more concept than the work’s fragile architecture can support.

But this is widescreen, blockbuster Mozart and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Cuts (needed to get the interval-less opera down to a manageable length) are substantial, giving the work an even more fragmented feel than normal, and Patrick Summers’ music direction plays everything safe. But when you’re battling serious rain and the spatial logistics of this 7,000-seater outdoor venue, plenty can be forgiven.

While Summers and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra perform from indoor safety, their sound piped out with wonderful clarity and immediacy, the cast are exposed to the weather. Subtle microphones give them some support, but the demands – not least of negotiating a perilously steep stage in the wet – are significant. Nikolai Schukoff’s Tamino is one of the few singers who manages to project dramatically over the visual clamour of the set. His prince is unusually cocksure, and far fuller-toned than many, but there’s an attractive evenness through the full range of the voice and if his Tamino occasionally heads Tristan-wards it’s by no means unpleasant. He’s paired with Gisela Stille’s spirited Pamina, solidly sung except for some odd interpretative affectations in her speedy “Ach, ich fuhls”.

Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno plays for laughs, and while in a conventional opera house he’d get them in plenty, here his gentle comedy is dwarfed by the scale of everything around him. Daniela Fally’s Queen of the Night is perilously tight and undernourished, her fate on that high F sealed from the start, but the trios of both Ladies and Boys are excellent, and Hanna Herfurtner’s Papagena is a cameo delight.

The ambition and imagination of the Bregenz Festival operas is unlike anything else. The fluid stage space reimagines any work you place within it, and to harness this dominant landscape without becoming distracted by it is a challenge many directors have now taken up. Pountney’s Magic Flute might not be one of Bregenz’s greatest, but as a spectacle, a piece of music-theatre that finds the joy (if not the ritual or mystery) at the core of The Magic Flute it’s a winner.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism