A confession:  I have a real love/ hate relationship with Mozart’s Die Zauberflote.  I have always found its music to be an unfortunate mix of the sublime and the cloyingly cutesy.  I abhor the trend toward Disneyfied productions of this opera, usually to establish it as “family-friendly” (another term I abhor.)  So I must admit I was a bit dismayed when I opened La Cieca’s package to me and found this DVD of a 2014 production at the Dutch National Opera.

Happily, I find this production to be the best Zauberflote of my experience, because it takes the trials of Tamino and Pamina very seriously, making their quest to find love a genuinely human experience and a very human effort to determine the nature of good and evil.

Both Sarastro and his nemesis, the Queen of the Night, are treated as flawed, three-dimensional characters.  Only in the late Papageno-Papagena stuff does the production edge into preciousness.  But hey, you can’t win ‘em all.

Director Simon McBurney has crafted a visually thrilling, very visceral production, utilizing twelve actors as well as puppeteers to surround the action.  Generous use of very effective projections help establish location and mood.  Black-clad  actors, using simple pieces of paper, represent Papageno’s flock of birds flying hither and yon.  A stage manager in view of the audience creates offstage sounds.  There are stunning storm effects, a stage that rises, tilts, and falls, and a magnificent starry drop behind the Queen of the Night.  The production is arresting and inventive from beginning to end, and supports the music very effectively.

Special props go to the superb and riveting Queen of the Night as portrayed by Iride Martinez as a wheelchair-bound, desperate harridan.  “Der Holle Rache” is presented here in an absolutely fury, almost verismo-esque, by the terrifying Martinez, who gives her absolute all in this brilliant performance.  This scene is a perfect example of McBurney’s ability to make this opera more than a fairy tale.

The singing is uniformly excellent.  Maximillian Schmitt and Christina Landshamer are sensitive and moving as Tamino and Pamina; Brindley Sherratt is a deeply calm and intellectual Sarastro (reminded me a bit of mid-70’s Werner Erhard); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a driven, lustful Monostatos; Thomas Oliemans avoids the usual cuteness-trap of Papageno and lets us see the deep loneliness of the character while singing beautifully.

Conductor Marc Albrecht exudes joy and high spirits and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra responds with verve and elan.  The overture in particular was an absolute delight.

McBurney’s work and his unusual directorial process (shown in detail in this DVD’s “Extras” section) have fashioned quite an unusual and striking Zauberflote.  That said, one still must deal with the longeurs of the second act  (couldn’t we just have maybe one less trial?) and, just when you thought the happy ending was nigh, the unbearably saccharine scene where Papageno finds his ingénue.  But McBurney has succeeded in elevating this production above the level of “Oh, let’s take the kids!” and found the beating heart of Mozart’s masterwork.