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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 Bregenz Festival's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Photo © Bregenzer Festspiele/Anja Köhler
The Bregenz Festival's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Photo © Bregenzer Festspiele/Anja Köhler

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.