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.

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.