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.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.