The Magic Flute at the Deutsche Oper Berlin is an interesting, well-sung and well-performed classic. Set in an agrarian world where Sarastro is less a high priest than he is a benevolent farmer-king, Günter Krämer’s 1991 production does not subvert the opera’s problems so much as it highlights them. But combined with excellent singing and a strong orchestra, the evening proved enjoyable, if occasionally awkward.

© Bettina Stöß / Deutsche Oper 2013
© Bettina Stöß / Deutsche Oper 2013

From the outset of the opera, the characters’ places in the piece are drawn, quite literally, in black and white: Tamino, sung by the silvery-voiced Yosep Kang, appears in a white suit, while the Three Ladies wear black. Indeed, every woman in the production but for Pamina and Papagena wears black. A chorus of giggling girls in black mini-dresses hides under a long sheet to make the dragon that menaces Tamino, and though Monostatos, sung by the light-voiced German tenor Burkhard Ulrich, wears the white uniform of Sarastro’s people, he is painted in such dark black face as to leave no suspicions of his true place. Sarastro and his people, on the other hand, are clad in white. The message “women are evil unless they are governed by men” could not be more explicit.

Vocally, however, The Magic Flute is a success. The cast of Deutsche Oper ensemble members included Albert Pesendorfer as Sarastro, who filled the house with his deep, rich sound, and Hila Fahima, a 26-year-old Israeli soprano, as the Queen of the Night. Though she had some trouble with her highest notes in the Queen’s most famous aria, “Der Hölle Rache”, and nothing could mask her relative youth beside the rest of the cast, Fahima made a captivating Queen. American baritone John Chest debuted in the role of Papageno, singing with great panache and no small amount of humor. Yosep Kang was the evening’s real star: his Tamino was elegant and sparkling, each note ringing out with crystal clarity. A dedicated and talented ensemble featuring Siobhon Stagg, Stephan Barchi, Rachel Hauge, Alexandra Hutton and Ronnita Miller filled out the evening.

Interestingly, the production does make some slight changes to Act II: Monostatos does not try to rape Pamina, but commiserates with her after Tamino is led away to the trials from which she is barred, and laments that he is doomed to be evil because of his race. This causes Pamina, elegantly sung by the American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner, to put her arm around him. The Three Boys play almost no part at all, singing from on high or in the pit. Ultimately, though, the production is straightforward enough to have come from Mozart’s time, and the problems inherent in the text are never addressed.

However, while Krämer’s production is over 20 years old, it is still fresh and interesting, despite the unfortunate blackface and bald sexism. Mozart’s music is always enjoyable, and the singers were superbly accompanied by the Deutsche Oper Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Repušić. Overall, it was an entertaining night at the opera.