The Magic Flute in the Hotel Sacher

Canadian design/direction team Barbe & Doucet were engaged to create a new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne in 2019. As they explain in the introductory feature The Making of the Magic, they had refused for 20 years to tackle this work because of what they saw as its inherent racism and sexism. Part of the interest therefore in watching this recording is to see whether and how they deal with those two issues.


The starting point for their production is the Hotel Sacher in Vienna where, apparently, the founder died soon after its opening and his widow Anna decided to take over. The idea of a woman running a grand hotel at the beginning of the 20th century was, of course, absurd! In Barbe & Doucet’s concept the hotel is run by the Queen of the Night with the strictly male and very hierarchical kitchen under the direction of head chef Sarastro. The three ladies are chambermaids and clearly used to cleaning up after messy serpents. Tamino is a guest. Papageno is a sales rep for Papageno’s Feather Company; purveyors of pillows and duvets. And, crucially, Monostatos is in charge of the coal fired heating system which explains why he and his crew are black and grimy without implying a racial element.


Act 1 seems to play out pretty conventionally with Sarastro making the usual remarks about the fickleness of women but theres a change of pace after the interval. Various suffragettes, including the Queen of the Night, make appearances. Sarastro seems impressed enough by Pamina’s constancy to think she might just be employable in the kitchen. In the trials scene, which takes place in a wonderfully Sorceror’s Apprentice sort of kitchen, Pamina wears the chef’s hat and does the cooking while Tamino does the dishes. It all ends with a reconciliation scene in which Sarastro and his henchmen don suffragette sashes. This brief description sounds a bit hokey but it does hang together remarkably well.


Concept aside, it’s a fun production. The sets are black and white line drawings on flats while the costumes are extremely colourful. There’s a lot of physical comedy and it’s often very funny indeed. There’s also very good use of puppetry in a number of different ways. One could take a child to see this and they would have a blast even if completely oblivious to the subtext.


There is some really good singing and acting too. Brindley Sherratt is a solid and imposing Sarastro and Björn Bürger is a brilliant comic actor as Papageno. David Portillo and Sofia Fomina both sing very stylishly as the lovers and are convincing in their characters. I wasn’t totally convinced by Caroline Wetterburn in Act 1 but she knocks the Der Hölle Rache scene out of the park vocally and dramatically. The supporting cast is very good too. The Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment are as good as ever and Ryan Wigglesworth’s choice of tempi and general co-ordination are judicious.


François Roussillon directed the video and it’s well done with apt shot selection and no gimmicks. It’s backed up on Blu-ray with first class picture and sound quality. If

you want a production that is great fun without being crass this is a good choice but it’s not the most intellectually penetrating Zauberflöte ever. That crown, I think, still belongs to Robert Carsen’s Baden-Baden production.


Catalogue number: Opus Arte OABD7268D

This review first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera Canada.

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