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Die Zauberflöte

Royal Opera House

I AMa bit of a jinx on leading players. I only have to turn up at the Royal Ballet and the principal twists an ankle, pulls a hamstring or, in the case of Darcey Bussell, gets pregnant. Blimey, even Bryn Terfel had to mime his role as Wotan in Das Rheingold because of a cold. Many have tried to silence the Welsh Warbler over the years; I do it in a flash. At La Clemenza di Tito the emperor himself, Paul Nilon, wakes up with a sore throat and is replaced.

So what happens when I turn up for Paul McVicar's production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), yes, the smoke signals have already gone out, and another lead man goes belly up. Will Hartmann has the dreaded lurgy enabling Robert Murray promotion from First Priest to the heroic prince, Tamino. Still, Hartmann's lucky; Mozart died just weeks after the premiere of this Masonic opera.

Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were both masons, so Die Zauberflöte was inevitable. Now a friend of mine who is a member of a Lodge would tell me that everything I have heard and read about the masons is exaggerated. Well, the evidence keeps piling up, and Mozart and Schikaneder, even in their defence of freemasonry, provide enough here to make books, such as Stephen Knight's The Brotherhood, seem not as far-fetched as they claim.

Knees Up

Indeed, Knight reignited the theory that it was not Mozart's rival composer Salieri who killed him at the early age of 35, but that he was poisoned by the Brotherhood, because he had revealed too many of their secrets in Die Zauberflöte. Whatever, the opera, with its dark plot of abduction, mysticism, secret rituals and its contrast of spiritual and material values, is hardly discreet. It was the beginning of the post-Enlightenment era.

Masonic references are littered throughout, with "brotherhood' and "temples" - "these sacred halls" - constant refrains, as well as specific Masonic numbers, such as the three notes that appear in the Overture and Act II, and symbols. That there is also an attempted rape and attempted suicide (not surprisingly it is Pamina in both cases), makes Die Zauberflöte very dark and sinister.

Mozart returned to the Singspiel form, a comic opera with spoken dialogue, and Simon Keenlyside, in one of his favourite and most-celebrated roles, the bird-catcher Papageno, steals the show with his lovable character, who charges around the stage. No doubt when his voice goes Keenlyside could make a career in pantomime. God forbid, we can do with a replacement for Frank Bruno.

The set is a trademark of David McVicar productions - dark with constant changing mobile scenery. There are plenty of stars in the sky, a large moon and a blinding, rolling sun, which thankfully appears at the end, as light wins out over darkness, otherwise we would not have seen anything, so ferocious was it. Ray-Bans not opera glasses are needed for the last scene.

Sarastro (Jan-Hendrick Rootering), the High Priest of Isis and Osiris, holds Pamina (Rebecca Evans) captive, and Tamino, who is saved from a serpent by the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies, is sent by the Queen (Anna-Kristiina Kaappola) to rescue her daughter, with a magic flute, magic bells and three boys, who act as guides and dispense wisdom from their flying chariot.

Padlocked

Tamino, who has fallen in love with "this angelic" picture of Pamina, is assisted by Papageno. They find Pamina but take a liking to Sarastro and want to join his brotherhood. They have to go through various trials - rituals - including silence, while Pamina has the added problem of Monostatos (Adrian Thompson), Sarastro's vile servant, attempting to rape her.

Anyway to cut an incredibly complex story short, Papageno is presented with his own love, Papagena (they talk of having children, papageni), Monostatos turns against Sarastro and teams up with the Queen of the Night, who has emerged as the baddie, as her name implies. The sun, though, wins out over the night, which is good news for Sarastro, Pamina and Tamino.

The libretto is full of moral statements such as when Papageno claims he killed the serpent and has his mouth padlocked, "If liars were silenced, brotherly love would prevail", and "love not vengeance overcomes evil". Women do not come out of this too well. Their word is not to be trusted, says one priest, and their trickery should be guarded against, claim another two.

Kaappola is magnificent as the Queen whose motives you begin to suspect. Her first aria, the plaintive "O zitt're nicht, mein lieber Sohn" was marvellous - "I am condemned to grief for my daughter has been taken from me" - but she was a little shrill in the show-stopper, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen", but such a challenge vocally that no wonder the audience erupts at its conclusion. Murray is more than an adequate stand-in for Hartmann, Welsh soprano Evans excels as Pamina - "Ach, ich fühl's" is a dream - while Gail Pearson's highly sexed Papagena has the enthusiasm and pushiness of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Usually the main star of the show is on the stage, but that changes when so eminent a conductor as Sir Charles Mackerras is in charge. He is 80 this year and also celebrates the 50th anniversary of his Covent Garden debut. Age, though, seems no impediment to him coaxing a marvellous performance from the House orchestra.

For those who do not like dialogue, as opposed to recitatives, getting in the way of their operas, Herbert von Karajan's version recorded for EMI in 1950 is highly recommended.

Review by Peter Wilson


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