When the programme for this year’s Budapest Spring Festival was announced, a guest performance of Die Zauberflöte by the Komische Oper Berlin promised to be one of the highlights and it fully lived up to that expectation. The production itself is already a well-known quantity, having been performed in Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Warsaw and Madrid to rave reviews since its 2012 première, and it conquered the Budapest public as well. I’ve never seen an audience so completely enraptured and thoroughly entertained at a performance before.

A collaboration between Barrie Kosky and the 1927 company, the production does away with the usual Masonic symbolism and reimagines the opera as a 1920s silent film (and German expressionist cinema in particular), relying mainly on the wonderfully vivid animations of Paul Barritt. Though ‘opera as a silent film’ is a somewhat paradoxical concept, it’s well thought-out and delivered with consistency and remarkable commitment from its cast. As the animations provide the backbone of the production, the stage is ruled by a projection screen, with the singers moving around in front of it and sometimes on it, and spoken dialogues are replaced by intertitles and accompanied by piano (which, combined with Mozart’s music, makes for a somewhat disjointed listening experience).

In a nod to the stars and iconic figures of the era, Pamina and Papageno are modelled after Louise Brooks and Buster Keaton, while Monostatos is turned into Nosferatu. Sarastro’s realm undergoes considerable transformation as well: it is no sunny kingdom of enlightened men but a grim, alienating, highly mechanized world, suffocating rather than appealing. The concept and execution of this production might sound (and at times feel) somewhat surreal, but it is unfailingly funny, charming and, above all, a refreshingly original take, and the audience certainly appreciated it as such. 

Though the evening wasn't as stunning musically as it was scenically, Komische Oper’s ensemble gave a strong performance. A most endearing Pamina, Iwona Sobotka was the star of the evening, her full, luscious soprano a treat to hear: her heartrending “Ach, ich fühl's” was one of the highlights of the evening. Her Tamino was, unfortunately, less impressive. Adrian Strooper cut a convincing figure as the romantic lead, but his performance was mixed: his bright, elegant tenor felt ideal for the part, but his singing was often strained. Tom Erik Lie’s smooth, mellifluous baritone made for an appealing Papageno, and he nailed the nervous energy for the Keaton-esque portrayal of the role. Andreas Bauer’s warm, ringing bass impressed in the roles of the Speaker and Sarastro, though his sympathetic delivery of “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” was somewhat at odds with the menacing atmosphere in which it was delivered. Olga Pudova’s Queen of the Night had all the notes, hitting the high Fs in “Der Hölle Rache” with ease and confidence, though she sounded quite underpowered. Mirka Wagner, Karolina Gumos and Ezgi Kutlu made for a most fabulous trio of Ladies, almost stealing the show, and the Three Boys were sung wonderfully by members of the Tölzer Knabenchor.

Henrik Nánási’s conducting was strangely unfocused during the overture, making for a lacklustre start, but he quickly found his footing afterwards, leading a steady and enjoyable performance, and one that will be fondly remembered by the Hungarian public.