The Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer have been regular visitors to this country. Last year Fischer brought over his Le nozze di Figaro; this time, shortly after the shocking and probably politically-motivated cut of 80% – yes, 80% – from the Budapest municipal grant, we were given Die Zauberflöte, rather apt when thinking about the enlightenment, or lack of, in rulers.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra © Belinda Lawley
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Belinda Lawley

Fischer’s modus operandi is the ‘staged concert’ rather than the more common ‘semi-staged’ and his approach here was in many ways successful. The backdrop was a screen onto which a children’s book was projected. Pages turned as the story progressed. In the second half, there was some appealing shadow imagery that worked well with the Trial of Silence. Costumes were an odd mix: Papageno had walked straight out of Amadeus, Tamino seemed to mix an Oriental top with jeans, and – I still shudder – Monostatos was wearing some tight black leather garment with metal accoutrements. Mozart and BDSM is not the most obvious combination and one winced when Monostatos called for chains. Separate professional actors delivered the recitative in English which didn’t convince me. By all means have the spoken sections in English, but the division between singer and actor was unnecessary and distracting. Fischer began with a slightly gimmicky opening, asking for ‘volunteers’ from the audience to deliver the translation, and this was one of several slightly pantomime-like elements of the performance. I liked the concept of surtitles as words of the book, which does something to overcome the natural issue of flicking eyes to the top of the hall, and italicising lyrics of moral import was a novel, if unsubtle, way of reinforcing the message.

An immediate impression was made by the bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, singing Papageno. His voice was strident, almost too authoritative in its sheer power to capture the insecurity of the role, but was an absolute delight to listen to, with a freshness of tone, excellent projection and enough colour to inject some comedy into his well-sung “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”. Tamino, sung by Bernard Richter, has a pleasant voice, but it lacks sheer force behind it and seems liable to strain, with a top that didn’t feel easy. He has volume, and indeed decent projection, but lacks versatility. I detected faint hints of an Italianate sob in the earlier part of the evening. Pamina was sung by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, resplendent in flowing blue garment. She has a smoky quality to the voice that’s rather appealing, a slight steeliness in her higher register could do with being softened, but she gave a very beguiling “Ach, ich fühl's”. Generally, she was at her strongest during her her solo moments, when the more subtle qualities of the voice could be heard.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Pamina) © Belinda Lawley
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Pamina)
© Belinda Lawley

Sarastro was sung by the imposing bass Krisztián Cser - I say imposing, but his “O Isis und Osiris” was sung out of sight, and it was only when he gave a rich “In diesen heil'gen Hallen” that it was clear how much this distortion affected his voice. With a fine range and splendidly authoritative diction that befitted the enlightened priest, Cser also had an appealing stage presence and a touch of humour about him. Mandy Fredrich as the Queen of the Night delivered a very good “Der Hölle Rache” with well-executed coloratura. The voice isn’t huge and lacked the malice that the role calls for, but it was flexible and technically good enough for her performance to be a success. Leather-clad Monostatos was sung by Rodolphe Briand, who gave a tremendous piece of character singing and acting. Fingers wriggling constantly with suppressed lust and glee, Briand wheedled and scuttled to superb effect. The three ladies sung by Eleonore Marguerre, Olivia Vermeulen and Barbara Kozelj didn’t quite gel initially, taking some time to find a comfortable musical dynamic. The unnamed boys sang well, although Fischer’s staging robbed them of any mysticism.

Cash-strapped the orchestra may be, but they gave a deluxe performance. Fischer drew a luxurious velvet sound that once or twice lacked oomph (the overture was slightly lacking in vivacity) but was at its most beautiful in moments of pomp and profundity, most noticeably in the gate scene leading to the end of the first act. It wasn’t a perfect performance and there are kinks in the staging that really do need to be ironed out, but Mozart would probably have approved of its optimistic and intrinsically good-humoured nature.

****1