Cher Public

For the birds

Die Zauberflöte is a perennial favorite with audiences, and modern productions have attracted top singers and production teams.  Yet every production struggles with the performance text, particularly with the issues of race and sex.

The dreams of the Enlightenment may be lovely, but the social mores of their dreamers have not aged gracefully. Despite a message of fraternity, the poor handling of racial tensions, blatant celebration of gender inequality, and an idealized benevolent dictator sit poorly today. 

In his staging for the Salzburg Festival, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle eschews politics and creates a visually charming production, a choice that often brings us wonderful images but also unwittingly highlights the problems it ignores.  This 1982 recording is also marred by poor audio engineering, which picks up the orchestra clearly, but muffles and distorts the singers, particularly the women.  The audience, starchily Teutonic, are ruthlessly quiet and polite.

But despite these shortcomings, this is the Salzburg Festival, and even for a revival (the original production opened in 1978), the quality is remarkably high.  Peter Schreier sings Tamino with a deft touch.  His voice isn’t particularly youthful, but it has a heroic ring that doesn’t sacrifice flexibility.

As Pamina, Ileana Cotrubas is lovely, but the sonics do her no favors.  I don’t find her stylistically perfect –her phrases tend to drop off untidily, and she lacks a golden tone – but these same ‘faults’ make her sound like a teenage girl, at turns rebellious and acquiescent.  Pamina is rendered so completely passive by the libretto, essentially passing from the hands of one man (her kidnapper) to another (a man who falls in love with a picture of her), that a touch of humanity makes her interesting to watch.

Edita Gruberova is a justly famous Queen of the Night.  Again, bad sonics derail the focus on sustained notes, but even so, the coloratura has pinpoint accuracy.  Her arias are the most famous of the opera, but this is one of the few productions I’ve seen where she doesn’t steal the show.

Instead that honor goes to Christian Boesch as Papageno.  This part would launch him into appearances at major international opera houses, and rightly so.  He shows an incredible patience, gamely playing comic bits for the audience, and gradually winning some chuckles (he is quite funny, and the polite silence from the audience is aggravating).  He uses his sweet baritone cleverly, bringing something new to the character with each stanza.

The remaining cast is good, if less interesting.  Martti Talvela is a stoic Sarastro, who sings beautifully in the first act, but only approximates the low notes of the second half.  The three ladies (Edda Moser, Ann Murray, and Ingrid Mayr) make an effective albeit safe trio; the production downplays their sexiness and spunk, and as a result they have little to play with.  The chorus is exemplary, although they are also relegated to the background.

Predictably, Monostatos is the blindingly sore spot.  Horst Hiestermann’s singing is not the issue; his voice is light, and he moves through the brief aria easily.  Monostatos and his chorus of lackeys appear in dark black face, and the result is distinctly uncomfortable – probably the reason this DVD hasn’t been issued sooner.  To be sure, the part is already racially problematic: the libretto may assert that he is not a villain because he is black (then why choose to make him the only black character?), but the entire thing fits too neatly into stereotypes.

Racial impersonation has a long history and very continued presence in opera – while most new staging of Zauberflöte find alternatives for getting out the shoe polish for Monostatos, the rules are different for Otello or Cio-Cio San.  Obviously, every production is a product of a specific time and place, and today I think Ponnelle would have made some different choices.  Mozart’s works have been contentious throughout history, with productions from various time periods sanitizing offending bits.  Scholarship exists both condemning and defending Zauberflöte, and some stage directors simply choose to ignore the issue by changing the markers of difference (for example, Monostatos as Shrek).

But ultimately, I don’t know quite know where this specific choice leaves the experience for me.  The production is comfort food, and this unwelcome ingredient throws the entire balance off, leaving a bitter aftertaste.  It’s the tip of an iceberg, throwing other issues I usually manage to ignore into a harsh light: the current Taymor production at the Met, which takes out the racial problems without coming to a satisfying solution to the gender disparity, irks me slightly but doesn’t derail the opera for me.

To be fair, I don’t think sanitization is the best solution, and I admire directors like Kentridge who question the veracity of the libretto in their presentation, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that this is one of the most pleasantly escapist works in the repertoire.

Ignoring this uncomfortable choice and the shortcomings of the libretto, Ponnelle’s direction is masterful.  His balance of music and movement is unique, and his vision is harmonious.  The cast knows it, and they look supremely at ease.  This may feel like a ‘traditional’ production, but if Ponnelle is not radically modern, he is always gently undermining the lovely images he conjures up.

The set is a particularly efficient use of the Felsenreitschule, with set pieces rising and falling into mossy ruins.  This includes a miniature stage with a medieval tapestry depicting the Felsenreitschule – a broad wink rather than a ponderous ‘play-within-a-play.’  One telling moment has Papageno catching birds that hang from wires; he takes out a large scissors and cuts the strings, nimbly catching them in his basket.  There is always a sense of questioning, a visual world that acknowledges its own illusion.  Maybe this is a suggestion to take the outmoded ideals of the libretto less seriously, to simply enjoy the constructed dream.

But no matter how the production comes across, Mozart is the main event, and the real treat of the evening is James Levine at the podium.  From the opening notes, he coaxes great walls of sound from the orchestra, nimbly manipulating colossal structures that I’ve never heard in this score before.

This is a grandly conceived performance, and if the Masonic ideals in the libretto are less than convincing, this is truly uniting music.  Incidentally, Levine also receives the loudest laughs of the night when he gamely participates in a charming interplay with Papageno – the smirk on his face is priceless. This recording is a testament to both his abilities as a musician, and as a collaborator.

In many ways, seeing this production today reaffirms the need to develop and change operatic practice as our cultural ideology changes.  Directors today are more aware of these issues, and productions tend to be either more sanitized, or more politically aware.

But for those wishing to see this classic Zauberflöte, there is an alternative: Boesch and Ponelle developed a version of the same production for children that also survives as a DVD, with mostly the same cast.  If you want to see a fairytale, I’d recommend the one for children, devoid of the ugliness we accumulate as adults.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Ponnelle (a genius in my opinion) is an interesting case of how a former set and costume designer for theater and opera ultimately decided to eliminate the middle man -- the regisseur. Why bother dealing with them when he could do it so much better himself! He always worked from the orchestra score, not just a piano reduction, and knew it perfectly. He was a brilliant linguist and it was alway a joy to watch him in rehearsal. The world of opera suffered a great loss after his tragic and premature death (he fell into the orchestra pit during rehearsals in Isreal prior to his cardiac surgery). He smoked incessantly -- even in rehearsals with great artists. In some theater he even paid the fine in advance for smoking. Doubtless someone will mention his MET Fliegende Hollander or Manon, which were not successful for Ponnelle, but New York treated him like a yokel from the provinces and even though he and Levine had a great collaboration, NY never really saw the best of his work. San Francisco saw more of his work -- including his sets for their first Frau ohne Schatten. Chicago shared some of those productions as well. Each Ponnelle production seem to build from the previous one: the great tree in his Munich Pelleas that morphed into his Bayreuth Tristan and Glyndbourne Falstaff; the huge head for his Turandot production that stemmed from an unrealized production of Aida for Munich that took place in the statue of the Sphynx. The most famous singers adored working with him and he inspired them to do some of their best work.

  • bassoprofundo

    >>Die Zauberflöte is a perennial favorite with audiences, and modern productions have attracted top singers and production teams.

    Huh? What a really crappy way to start a ‘review.’ Magic Flute is a favorite. Thanks. Modern productions attract top singers and top production teams. Thanks again. What is that supposed to mean, “modern” productions? as in, time-period modern? like, since 19__? or modern as in “modern” aesthetically? neither of those makes any sense with the statement, since I’ve seen many “modern” productions in terms of time which have attracted shit singers, and “contemporary” productions which have done the same.

    >>Yet every production struggles with the performance text, particularly with the issues of race and sex.

    what? Manrico needs to see more Magic Flutes. Most of them are incredibly boring and frivolous and do not struggle with any “issues” at all. The few that do definitely do not constitute an “every.”

    I think La Cieca needs to start editing these reviews. Each of them sounds like a college freshman paper, with the “since the beginning of time, man has tried to…” type introductions. Just talk about the production in question and stop giving the boring, often erroneous, intros. Seriously.

    • Okay, dickhead, you’re on moderation.

      • phoenix


      • Pu-Tin-Pao

        I have to disagree, bassoprofundo. I found the review to be a very interesting one, with intriguing discourse on race and gender in the singspiel amongst other informative elements. Oh, and I don’t think that Zauberflote is a boring composition. Not by a long shot.

        Lord knows I don’t always agree with La Cieca. I definitely did this time. Thank you for your well-thought and written review, Manrico!

      • SilvestriWoman

        Mille grazie, Divina Cieca!!!

    • mandryka

      Easy! Easy!, Basso. Sounds like you’re having a VERY bad day. Manrico’s review is much more sincere, clear and sensible than your self-absorbed and unseemly retort. Listen to yourself!

    • papopera

      …and stop, cease and desist from using that damn tiresome word “issue or issues” there must be other synonyms in the English language.

    • operaqueen

      Is that time of the month or what? C’mon, dude. I, for one, am grateful for these reviews. They always tell me something.

      “Dickhead.” Brava to La Cieca. I haven’t heard that one in a while and I’ve always loved it!

  • Some Ponelle productions have not aged well, I saw his Cenerentola in Chicago a couple of years ago and it looked a little tattered. The Manon, from the little we could see in the Met’s “Let’s worship Fleming gala” is suffering the same fate. Seems his Idomeneo and Tito have fared better.

    I have to say I own this DVD, bought a previous incarnation and the reviewer is pretty much spot on. The production values are amazing, the audio is really lacking but i would take it any day of the week.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      I understand what you mean about appearing dated, but one cannot restage a Ponnelle production from the book, from an archival video or DVD. HE made the difference in how the text was declaimed, interpreted and rehearsed. Although many of his former assitants (Frisell, Zambello, C. Alden, Asagaroff, among other) knew the values he strove to achieve, but the revivals without him were never quite the same. Ponnelle was unique. In the face of less talented conductors, Ponnelle made sure the tempi served the music. He staged MUSIC. His lighting rehearsals went on for hours until he accomplished exactly the effect he was seeking. It’s a great pity that the Munich Pelleas did not travel to other theaters. There were no real “staging rehearsals” for Ponnelle’s film of Madama Butterfly. He took hours with the cameraman and lighting crew setting up the shots then simply talked through the segments with the singers -- then the camera rolled. They only paused if the lipsynch was not the best. In one of the scenes in the first act, where one sees a blade of grass waving in the foreground, it was Ponnelle lying in front of the camera blowing the plant to make it move correctly!

      He did not live to finalize the cosi film and this reharsal footage of him is not the best. (When I mentioned his use of the orchesta score -- I meant for his private preparations.)

      The Ponnelle Carmina Burana film is not well-known in the USA:

      Ponnelle’s son is now a conductor:

  • phoenix

    Lack experience at not having heard nor seen this DVD, but it is quite old, not all the videos from those days had firstclass audio. If some commenters find the regie a bit dull, well all you have to do is use your imagination! Just from the cover pictured above, the first thing I thought when I first saw it was how wonderful it was to see Peter Schrier give Ileana Cotrubas a hit from the haschpipe!

  • peter

    O.T., and my apologies if this has already been posted, but there’s an interview with Jonas Kaufmann in the Huffington Post about his upcoming Siegmund this week:

    • PokeyGascon

      What kind of article on JK has no pictures? False advertising, I would say.

  • I saw the opening night of the original production in 1978 -- Eric Tappy was the Tamino and Jose Van Dam the Sprecher but otherwise the leads were the same as on the DVD. It was a magical evening in what had already been a series of wonderful evenings -- Teresa Berganaza in Alcina and Janet Baker in Dido at Aix a few days before. Ponnelle’s staging used the Felsenreitschule to its best advantage and Manrico is dead on about Levine.

  • Batty Masetto

    Ponnelle was a wonderful director – but does anybody here besides me remember the shrieks of outrage at how he “destroyed” Nozze by having Figaro rouse the peasants during “Se vuol ballare” or “ruined” Butterfly by staging her dream about Uncle Sam welcoming her to America?

    Plus ça change …

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Read your Beaumarchais and Belasco!

    • Regina delle fate

      Ponelle always got bad reviews in the UK and only did two productions for British companies -- an unforgettable Falstaff at Glyndebourne and a so-so Pasquale at Covent Garden (although Jonathan Miller’s replacement isn’t much of an improvement). Edinburgh got to see his Monteverdi-Zyklus from Zürich and a couple of his Cologne Mozarts.

      • Often admonished

        You forget the super-disaster Aida with Riciarelli and Pavarotti (and Wixell and Mehta). The designs were worked around a giant Pharoh’s head. When Halmen saw it emerge from the workshops he realized that it looked a helluva lot like Benny Hill. And he knew the show was doomed.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          You’re right about the huge head for AIDA, but I thought the production never came to be. Munich and the MET deemed it too expensive, but you may be correct about Pet. Where was it done and when?

        • MontyNostry

          That Aida was appalling. But I think David McVicar’s recent one at Covent Garden is even worse, since it thinks it’s High Art.

    • armerjacquino

      I was never quite sure about Ponnelle. His Tito film- despite a wonderful soundtrack featuring Tappy, Troyanos and Neblett is hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

      • Batty Masetto

        I’ll own up to liking that Tito. There’s something about the over-the-topness that ties in for me to the grisly looniness of first-century Roman imperials. (I’ll admit I may be reading things in here -- example: Titus was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian, who was Vitellia with the gloves off and eventually got himself murdered in proper Roman imperial style.) The performances and the modern reinterpretations of 18th century clothes fit with the scale of the crumbling ruins. And I love the chorus of dummies.

  • I have big problems with Flute. I think Schikaneder wrote a rather schizoid libretto. It’s a Comedy! It’s a Drama! It’s low-brow! It’s High brow! The changes in tone are jarring, imho, and that goes for the music as well as the dramaturgy.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      These are truths universally acknowledged.

    • I always have the same reaction to the opera. I am absolutely delighted for most of the first act but then start to lose interest. I couldn’t care less about the rituals that Tamino and Papageno have to go through. And the Masonic morals of the story hold no interest for me either. Around half-way through the second act, I just want shut Papageno up and tell them to hurry up with damn rituals.

      Musically, the work is top-drawer Mozart, no doubt. But it is not a work that I particularly look forward to seeing in a theatre.

      • couragewolfgang

        I just read Judith Eckelmeyer’s book “The Cultural Context of the Magic Flute”, and she posits a concept I hadn’t thought of before: that the weirdly disjointed libretto is on purpose, that we’re SUPPOSED to be jarred by the transition, because the audience is supposed to be undergoing the same journey of transformation as the characters. We’re presented with a fairy tale, and we buy into the fairy tale, only to have it stripped away in the second act just as the characters realize their own foolishness.

        She does also address the racial/gender factors of “Flute” as well…it’s a pretty fascinating book, totally changed how I view this opera.

  • SilvestriWoman

    Thanks to all for the Ponnelle memories! I was privileged to see many of his productions at SFO in the 70s -- Boheme, Cenerentola, Cosi, Rigoletto (unbelievably opulent). Still the ones that especially stand out are the Fliegende Hollander (with the wraithlike ghost sailors hanging from the sails) and a lush Poppea that proved true eroticism need not involve nudity. When Tappy placed his hand on Troyanos’ velvet-covered breast, I doubt there was a single dry seat in the house.

    (not Troyanos but Rachel Yakar)

    • A. Poggia Turra

      Silvestri Woman -- correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that tha Poppea took place during that special 1981 “Summer Festival” season, when we had that superb Poppea, the American premier of Reiman’s Lear (in Ponnelle’s Munich production), and that weird generational-contrast Don Giovanni with elderly males (Sieipi and Taddei) with young female singers Vaness, Cuberli, South).

      • SilvestriWoman

        You’re correct. It was a revival of the 1975 production, which was the one I saw.,,

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        I’ll never forget the premiere of the SFO Lear. The pitches were so difficult for the singers to find that they had grand pianos in the wings giving pitches slightly in advance amidst the cacophony. After the intermission, just before the downbeat for the second act, someone in the audience shouted to the conductor: “louder, and more violent!

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Forgot to add that the pitches were hammered out in octaves on those pianos.