Cher Public

Lake, placid

Having recently reviewed Glass’s The Perfect American on this site and participated in spirited discussions about the film Saving Mr. Banks, it is perhaps not surprising that Walt Disney should spring to my mind as I watched the Unitel Classica video of Die Zauberflote from the floating stage of the Bregenzer Festspiele.  One expects spectacle in all productions on the floating stage, but here the theme park antics completely overwhelm Mozart and Schikaneder’s simple fable. 

Fireworks erupt, all the ladies and the boys are enormous puppets (as are their horses), giant blow-up plants form a jungle resembling the lawn in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, all characters arrive and depart from the water on barges (at one performance a barge collapsed sending Pamina and the Queen of the Night in to the water where they had to be rescued by staff!).  Papagena is a pom-pom wielding cheerleader spawned from an eggshell.  Almost all of these vast scenic effects happen in the first ten minutes, leaving little new to happen in the rest of the piece.

Die Zauberflote is an opera that must be played with at least a bit of grounding in real intention and danger, or it can spiral into repetitive moments of playfulness and cutesiness.  Alas, David Pountney’s production never seems to rise above the level of children’s theatre.  All the performers are working way too hard at being amusing, with the exception of a very strong and grounded Norman Reinhardt as Tamino, a pleasure to hear and to watch, and the musically accurate and searing Queen of the Night of Ana Durlovski.

Now, some of Pountney and set designer Johan Engels effects are quite effective.  The “sea serpent” coming from under water to attack Tamino is the most successful.  I also liked the Trial by Water scene where body doubles of Tamino and Pamina simply walk into the water until they disappear.  The excellent puppetry work from designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca and the Blind Summit Theatre add greatly to the sense of fantasy and magic.

But I kept having to remind myself that there’s an opera in there someplace.  The score has significant cuts.  Conductor Patrick Summers’ tempi were consistently slow, sometimes turgid; the playing of the Wiener Symphoniker rather listless.  The singing, outside of the excellent Reinhardt and Durlovski, is pleasant and earnest but undistinguished.  Even with a microphone, Alfred Reiter lacked the essential low notes for Sarastro; Martin Koch was a cartoonish and grainy-voiced Monostatos.

I quite liked Bernarda Bobro’s glistening soprano as Pamina, though she often acted the generic ingénue.  Daniel Schmutzhard brings much life to Papageno and sings gamely, but his comic timing was “on” only part of the time.  Papagena was a chirpily delightful Denise Beck.  There was lovely singing from the three Ladies and the three Boys, with fine diction and clarity.

In the DVD’s accompanying booklet, David Pountney writes an essay in which he examines Die Zauberflote in great detail.  His fascinating analysis of the opera as inhabiting several different worlds (Quest Opera, Opera of Ideas, Fairy Tale, Folk Tale) shines much light on the philosophical and psychological sides of the piece.  Pountney clearly understands and admires the opera.  But I fear that most of the ideas expressed in the essay simply haven’t translated to the stage.  We get the charm, we get the magic, but we don’t get the ideas.

  • operaassport

    Saving Mr. Banks was completely ruined, for me, by the awful and ridiculous performance of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. He didn’t look like him, sound like him, act like him. He didn’t even evoke him. I don’t know what the point of stunt casting like that is. Emma Thompson was a delight but she couldn’t save the scenes with that toad in them.

    • danpatter

      The problem with Saving Mr. Banks is that people my age grew up with Walt Disney as a kind of family member -- we saw him every week, like a favorite uncle, sometimes every day. He was part of our lives. Hanks, I imagine, knew he could neither look nor sound like Disney. I do believe he captured Disney’s warmth and affability pretty well. Thompson was terrific, as you say.

      • operaassport

        Tom Hanks always plays Tom Hanks. That’s the problem.

    • Clita del Toro

      I refuse to go to Tom Hanks movies--he is a drag and is always the same drag. This also goes for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise. I hate the sight of those three, especially Cruise. ;)

  • grimoaldo

    “The score has significant cuts.”
    That is A Very Bad Thing.
    Which bits of the music were cut?
    What possible reason could there be for doing that?

    • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

      Grimoaldo, I suffered through this travesty in July 2013. Let me try and explain the cuts and why they were made. You have to understand that Bregenz is tiny, and does not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the 7,000 people that fill the on-shore arena in front of the Seebühne (lake stage) every night (they play almost every night with three revolving casts), so you have to give people time to get to wherever they are staying, which involves a lot of public transportation which ends around midnight. Since the arena faces west, performances cannot begin until the sun sets: 21:15 in July, 21:00 in August. So you are locked in to a performance time of roughly two hours or maybe a little more (there are no intermissions at Seebühne performances; imagine the amount of time it would take for 7,000 people to go out for a glass of Sekt and then climb back in). “Tosca” was a perfect fit, as were “La bohème,” “Andrea Chénier,” and “West Side Story.” “Il trovatore” (uncut) was a close call. “Aida” had to be cut. So they took a chainsaw to “Zauberflöte,” which was a bad choice for the Seebühne in the first place given all the spoken dialogue essential to understanding the plot. Most of the choral music was eliminated or drastically cut (a chorus of about 25 members sang from the indoor Festspielhaus and was amplified into the arena), dialogue was down to bare bones, and anything with a second verse was cut. I went with a friend, a native Vorarlberger, who is only a casual opera fan, and he did only some basic homework. At the end of the performance, I asked him if he had been able to follow the story (let me also mention that there are German subtitles or approximations of texts projected onto screens at the far sides of the arena) and he replied, “No idea!” I also hated just about every aspect of the staging, and the cast we got was the second or third and apparently less stellar than the one on the DVD. At least this was Pountney’s last year as Intendant (I am not a fan), and Elisabeth Sobotka (currently at Grazer Oper) takes over this year (although the “Zaubferflöte” will be repeated this summer, as Seebühne productions are so expensive to mount they must play for two years to recoup their costs). Maybe she will have a better ideas for appropriate repertoire (the cuts in “Aida” were also pretty painful, but not as bad as “Zauberflöte,” and the production was intelligent, interesting, and the cast I got was excellent).

      • grimoaldo

        Thank you for explaining. It sounds horrid.

  • Avantialouie

    May I suggest that a better title for this review might well have been, “Lake, woebegone.” It’s not often that La Cieca misses an opportunity like that.