The 2018 Salzburg Festival production of Die Zauberflöte really pushes the envelope of reenvisioning the piece. Is there anything to say about this piece that hasn’t already been said? Lydia Steier thinks so and goes some considerable way tp making her point. So what’s the big idea here? Essentially the kicking off points are that it’s about (in a sense) a dysfunctional family and it’s a fairy tale. So we open on the dining room of a rather depressing bourgeois Austrian family in the mid 1930s sitting down to dinner. There’s the mother, the father, the grandfather and three boys; all rather formally dressed. A portrait of a bride hangs behind the table. The father has a hissy fit and storms out. The mother, who appears to drink, starts breaking things. The grandfather takes the boys off to the nursery to read them a bedtime story.
From there the story is told in a series of chapters read by the grandfather which replace most of the dialogue from the original. The characters are imagined as characters from the boys’ lives. Tamino is a wooden toy soldier. The Three Ladies are the household servants; though they have put military tunics and side caps over their dresses. Papageno is the butcher’s son who brings dead plucked birds to the household. The Queen of the Night is the boys’ mother.
This sort of makes sense but it gets darker and weirder when we reach Sarastro’s realm. It’s a circus. Sarastro is the Ringmaster. Pamina is the assistant/target for the knife throwing Monostatos. There are clowns, acrobats, aerialists and lots more. It keeps getting darker. Old Papagena is a monstrous mechanical contrivance with a marked resemblance to Theresa May. The Final Trial is War (the last one or the next one?) indicated by projections all across the back of the enormous Grosses Festspielhaus stage. In the final scene there’s no reconciliation. Monostatos, the Three Ladies and (maybe, it’s unclear) the Queen of the Night are summarily executed. The weird thing is what starts out looking like gratuitous visual excess starts to make a nightmarish kind of sense.
The whole package comes in at a very short 145 minutes so somewhere along the way considerably more than 45 minutes of music and dialogue has been cut. Only once did this seem problematic. The whole build up to Der Hölle Rache is omitted but even that wasn’t too big a deal. The story gets told effectively enough.
All of this is presented quite spectacularly. The huge stage is continuously reconfigured with large moving scenery elements. There are all kinds of projections. Once we get to Sarastro’s real there are colourful characters doing stuff all over the place. There’s lots of darkness too so it’s an absolute nightmare to film. The video director (Michael Berger) has to balance the video audience missing a lot of what’s going on with showing shots that are 85% darkness with a few tiny lit points. On balance he does a very good job but this was surely a show to see in the theatre rather than on video.
Performances are of the highest calibre. Both Mauro Peter as Tamino and Christiane Karg as Pamina have to pull off the usual big arias while maintaining a kind of stylized persona. They do well. The big arias are well sung and the acting is convincing. The same is true for Adam Plachetka’s nerdy bear of a Papageno. Albina Shagimuratova is the Queen of the Night (and mother). She looks like a meringue with horns but the two big arias are absolutely nailed. My one reservation, and it’s small, is Matthias Goerne’s rather sinister Sarastro. It’s well sung and extremely well acted but I could maybe have used a bit more vocal heft. The Three Boys, identified only as members of the Wiener Sängerknaben have tons to do and they are absolutely fantastic. There’s a final bit of luxury casting in the role of the Grandfather played to great effect by Klaus Maria Brandauer.
It’s the usual Salzburg/Vienna chorus and orchestra and they sound very good. Constantinos Carydis conducts and it sounds like a Vienna orchestra playing Die Zauberflöte. What more can one ask for? The small army of trick cyclists, acrobats, aerialists, clowns and what not are pretty amazing.
I mentioned the difficulty of filming this piece earlier. Some of the choices made by the video director demand really good image quality. By and large, on Blu-ray, it’s there. I imagine that this would be a hot mess on standard DVD (see note below). The sound quality (DTS-HD-MA and PCM 2.0) is also Blu-ray quality. There are no extras on the disk and the explanatory material in the booklet, which also contains a track listing and a super brief synopsis, extremely brief and rather self-regarding. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
Clearly this recording is not going to please the traditionalists but for those looking for something more conceptual it has quite a lot to offer. That said, if I could have but one video recording of this work I would stick with the compelling Carlsen/Rattle version from Baden-Baden.
Note added 11th August 2020: I got hold of a DVD copy and was able to do an A/B comparison of DVD vs Blu-ray. It makes a big difference here. There are scenes where it doesn’t matter much but in complex, dark scenes like Stille, stille the difference is quite marked. The DVD version lacks detail and is curiously “flat” with little sense of depth perception. Its not quite as bad as I feared but it’s enough to impact one’s enjoyment.