Fairy tale, spiritual journey or slapstick comedy? Confronted with the disparate elements of Die Zauberflöte, many directors end up emphasising one over the others. In the Hungarian State Opera's production of Mozart’s last stage work, director Miklós Szinetár opts to let the laughs rule.

<i>The Magic Flute</i> © Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera
The Magic Flute
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

Csaba Sándor shone as Papageno, in an unfettered performance at Budapest’s Erkel Theatre of the happy-go-lucky bird catcher who prefers the earthly pleasures to the virtues of moral elevation chosen by Tamino, his princely companion. Sándor’s voice was a highlight of this production; a hearty baritone that – whether spoken or sung – complemented his acting skills. And with any Mozart opera only as good as its musical director, kudos to Gábor Káli, who conducted his orchestra with spirit and understanding after a somewhat stiff overture.

Zita Váradi was big voiced as Pamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night. But some of her phrases lacked finish. Viktória Varga's split-second pause before hitting the F6 above high C may be excused in her otherwise flawless performance of the Queen's signature aria, one of the most difficult in the operatic repertoire. Beatrix Fodor, Gabriella Balga and Bernadett Wiedemann were well cast as the Queen's three ladies, as were Gábor Géza and Gergely Ujvári as the two priests.

But Dániel Pataky disappointed as Tamino, Pamina's rescuer, his voice on the thin side, even for leggiero, where lyric was called for. Sarastro, the high priest of the sun who guides Tamino and Pamina to wisdom, deserved a richer bass than that of András Palerdi. And Ágnes Molnár as Papagena, Papageno's young bride, transmitted little of the exuberant joy demanded by the role as she and her suitor sing their elated final duet.

<i>The Magic Flute</i> © Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera
The Magic Flute
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

The lack of cohesive dramaturgy is a problem. But a greater failing is the choppy staging, leaving this a Magic Flute short of the magic seen in more creative productions. The projections that account for most of the scenic changes are sometimes irrelevant or sloppy. Tamino flees a street riot in the opening screen – but that video is then replaced by a still of the dragon. It's as if Szinetár, the director, decided to take a timid step into Regietheater only to retreat, chastened, to the classic script. And the lava and a flood breaking through the stones of the temple would have been more convincing had the videos depicting the loving pair’s trial by fire and water been projected only onto the temple instead of everything on stage, the principals included.

But the device is used to good effect as Tamino gazes at the portrait of his beloved. While he sings "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" – or in this case its Hungarian equivalent – Váradi's (Pamina's) face mutates into Michelangelo's Venus, da Vinci's Mona Lisa and other immortal beauties, returning to that of Váradi as he finishes the final phrase.

One gem enjoyed only by those who understand the language is the Hungarian version of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto. Translated in 1913 by Zsolt Harsányi, it is a delight of subtle plays on words and clever poetry to which the English subtitles failed to do justice.

**111