Sometimes in life, even the best laid plans do not work out as expected. This was the case for the Nederlandse Reisopera's new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, a co-production with Volksoper Wien. Illness and problems with the scale of the planned production meant that, with just a week to go, plans changed abruptly, and directors Stan Geurts and Anne Slothouwer decided to produce a semi-staged version instead. This must have been quite a challenge for all involved, however the end result was captivating, one which many will remember for a long time.

David Kerber (Tamino)
© Marco Borggreve

As a consequence, the set was bare. The orchestra was seated on stage and the main visual effects were achieved by changes in lighting, the most effective of which saw the stage cast in red, punctuated by red strips of lights over each of the musicians stands – a very clever idea! Costumes were kept to a minimum and whilst dressing the cast in a mixture of everyday and evening wear worked very well, even if the comedy and farce of the plot, usually so cleverly depicted visually with Papageno as the birdcatcher and the evil Queen of the Night with all her malicious intent, went slightly missing.

Despite all of this, the cast was amazing. David Kerber was a revelation as Tamino. Exuding confidence beyond his years, the young Austrian’s role debut was a triumph, his huge vocal range, commanding presence and sophisticated acting making him a bold choice. When surrounded by six shrouded women, he completely owned the stage, delivering his lines with panache. I look forward to seeing much more of this young talent.

Papageno, played by Lithuanian bass-baritone Modestas Sedlevicius, brought hilarious comedy, intensity, and self-reflection to the role. Fabulously comic moments included the playing of the magic bells for the first time while frightening all about, the comparison of Pamina to her photo, and the farce of having to declare his undying love to the highly comical bent-in-half old lady, Papagena.

Modestas Sedlevicius (Papageno)
© Marco Borggreve

Isabel Weller as Pamina was utterly convincing. Her relationship with both Tamino and Papageno was touching, and the love, the pain and the worry she experienced as her lover was submitted to trials by her evil mother, was real. Kristina Bitenc, Polly Leach and Anna Traub were equally fantastic as the Three Ladies, both in their devotion to character and their most admirable vocal skills. We felt their anguish, their pain, their frustration as they jostled for Tamino’s affections. In contrast, Petri Lindroos brought stature to Sarastro as his wonderful bass notes slightly quivered in their descent. We willed him to plunge the depths.

Thankfully, the aria we were all waiting for did not disappoint. Coloratura soprano Sophia Theodorides executed all the Queen of the Night's ludicrously high notes with ease, full of menace and vengeance, the penetrating, incisive quality of her voice sustaining the drama.

Anna Traub, Kristina Bitenc, Sophia Theodorides, Isabel Weller and Polly Leech
© Marco Borggreve

The surprise for me were the three boys from the Münchner Knabenchor; Fabio, Julius and Lazlo, all members of a choir who are no strangers to working with world-class conductors, were fabulous! With a purity, clarity and assuredness, coupled with excellent diction and ensemble, they were a joy. Their engaging and authoritative manner when reprimanding Papageno as they instructed him for one last time to stay silent had us all scared. 

The Phion Orchestra under the direction of Marcus Merkel were a little disappointing in the overture. The music lacked the required magic so central to this score, and there was little promise of the mischief and mayhem to come: details like matching the ends of phrases to those of the soloists; balance, tuning and tone in the trombones; articulation in the violins, starkly contrasted by moments of pure beauty in the horns, who at one point just emerged with a single beautiful note which just blossomed. Things changed with the entrance of Consensus Vocalis who were intense, serious and engaging.

So I ask, what is the key to any good performance whether it be concert, play or opera? An audience wants to be taken on a journey, to be shown the magic, quite literally in this case. On this criteria, Nederlandse Reisopera’s production was highly successful. While the props, costume and the staging were missing, the cast rose to the occasion and exceeded expectations. We all left with a deeper understanding of the opera, and a confidence that we can all survive life’s challenges.