, February 2006
The magic in Mozart’s ‘‘The Magic Flute’’ (or ‘‘Die Zauberflöte’’ in its original German) shines through TDK’s DVD of the brilliant Salzburg Festival production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle recorded in 1982, four years after its acclaimed initial performances.
With its blend of Masonic ritual, German singspiel, music drama and fantasy, Mozart’s great last opera has been subjected to all manner of bizarre stage treatments in recent years. Ponnelle’s production succeeds for its light touch, wit and, above all, because it sticks to the script and the essence of the piece, rather than conjuring up some trendy political or philosophical connection. Of course there are some warts, notably the passages by Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, that are unacceptably racist or sexist by today’s standards.
Ponnelle takes full advantage of the unique setting of the Felsenreitschule, the ‘‘Rocky Riding School’’ carved out of the sheer face of the Mönchsberg mountain in downtown Salzburg in 1693 to serve as a training site for the archbishop’s cavalry.
Taken over in 1926 for festival performances (as well as for the Trapp family concert in ‘‘The Sound of Music’’ movie), this dramatic outdoor setting provides resonant acoustics, a stage more than 130 feet wide and 96 arcades. Rising above the stage in three tiers, the arcades are ideal for placing choristers as well as for the giant sunburst illuminating Sarastro’s temple and the ‘‘serpent’’ winding in absurdly long coils down to the stage to menace Tamino.
In a nice touch, Ponnelle dresses the wise lead Sarastro and his followers in garments of the Classical Enlightenment while the Queen of the Night and her servants wear baroque costumes.
With a stellar international cast and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, Mozart’s score sparkles under the incisive leadership of James Levine. Soprano Edita Gruberova sings the Queen of the Night’s two fearsome arias with sensational clarity and pinpoint accuracy, knocking off the coloratura, the clutch of high C’s and the stratospheric F’s with apparent ease. Tenor Peter Schreier is a stylish and lyrical Tamino, soprano Ileana Cotrubas is a touching Pamina and baritone Christian Boesch steals many scenes with his funny, athletic and resonant Papageno. Bass Martti Talvela cuts an imposing figure as Sarastro but has a disconcerting tendency to sing off pitch.
George Frideric Handel’s ‘‘Teseo’’ was a delightful surprise when I saw the opening performance of the Bayreuth Baroque Festival in September 2003. I had never heard of the opera, nor had the other music critics with whom I was traveling, but ‘‘Teseo’’ was a strikingly good fit for the lavishly ornate Markgräfliches Opernhaus built just 35 years after Handel penned ‘‘Teseo.’’
The good impressions remain in the Arthaus DVD of the same production recorded in July 2004 at the theater in the 18th century New Palace built by Frederick the Great in Potsdam, Germany just outside Berlin. A co-production of the Handel Festival in Halle, the Goethe Theater in Bad Lauchstädt near Halle, the Hannover-Herrenhausen Festival and Bayreuth Baroque, ‘‘Teseo’’ offers splendid music, spectacular singing and interesting staging. Some camera close-ups, though, are unflattering to settings and soloists, dispelling the illusions seen by the audience.
Composed in 1713, ‘‘Teseo’’ is a fairy-tale opera based on the French lyric tragedy ‘‘Thesée’’ (Theseus). Although an artistic success at its London premiere, ‘‘Teseo’’ become a financial disaster after the aptly named theater director Owen Swiney made off with the box-office receipts from the first two sold-out performances. After 13 performances, the opera slid into obscurity until a 1947 revival.
Cast in ancient Greece, the opera deals with a classic love triangle involving King Egeo of Athens, his unrecognized war-hero son Teseo and the Princess Agilea. Infatuated with Agilea, Egeo breaks his engagement to Medea, proposing that she marry his son, whom he has never seen. After Teseo rejects her for Agilea, the vengeful Medea uses her magic powers to summon underworld demons to torment the pair. Later, she tries to trick Egeo into poisoning Teseo but just in time the king recognizes his son’s sword. When Medea subsequently tries to burn down the palace, the goddess Minerva intervenes to set things right.
Handel’s genius makes the improbable tale work with a magical variety of expressive music. Led by Wolfgang Katschner, the period-instrument Lauten Compagney Berlin plays with spirit and virtuosity, not least the fleet-fingered oboists. Katschner himself picks up a lute to accompany an aria.
The international cast is top quality, with singing of remarkable speed, agility and brilliance. The three countertenors, each with a different vocal quality, are also excellent. ‘‘Teseo’’ concentrates on the higher voices, with no part lower than alto.