The new Zauberflöte at this summer’s Salzburg Festival is a visually brilliant production with sets tailored to the atmospheric venue of the Felsenreitschule (for people not familiar with Salzburg, this is where the singing contest was held in the film The Sound of Music). The set, by Mathis Neidhardt, consists of four interlocking box-type rooms with façades of doors and arches (imitating the arched walls of the Felsenreitschule), which in various configurations function as the forest, the temple, Pamina’s room, and the place of the trial by fire and water. This ingeniously conceived set enables swift and seamless scene changes, which were very impressive.

Beneath the exterior of eye-catching sets and colourful costumes, however, I found the production as a whole quite dark. What struck me most was the seriousness of interpretation by both conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and director Jens-Daniel Herzog – perhaps a touch too serious for a Singspiel – basically a popular genre for the folk rather than the nobility. However, Die Zauberflöte is a work of many layers and enigmas (including a lot of Masonic symbolism) and can be interpreted on many levels, and this production was exploring its darker side, especially in its portrayal of Sarastro and his followers.

The production is set vaguely in the post-war 1950s (which, incidentally, seems to be a popular period for recent opera productions). The three ladies are in colourful evening dresses but each time they appear they are in slightly different guises – as Red Cross nurses rescuing Tamino after his confrontation with the serpent, in sunglasses and coats, and even as housewives with shopping baskets. Tamino is in a casual sporty suit and Papageno appears in a small van selling birds to housewives.

More disturbing was the portrayal of Sarastro and his followers as over-zealous scientists in laboratory coats, keen on performing experiments on humans – Tamino’s trial of fire and water seemed to be one such experiment. Also worryingly, the three boys are portrayed as little butlers with geriatric faces, perhaps as a result of experiments too. Sarastro himself has some sort of small machine with the image of the sun (a symbol of his wisdom?) artificially attached to him. It seemed the director was trying to make the point that the premise of Sarastro as the force of good and the Queen of the Night as the force of evil is too simplistic, and that over-enthusiastically pursuing science can be as harmful as raw passion and anger. The production ends with Sarastro and the Queen of the Night fighting over this “sun machine” and in the end Tamino grabs it and walks off with it, leaving the two in a struggle on the floor. It was definitely not a happy ending.

Harnoncourt’s interpretation also reflected such a dark view of the opera. His slow tempi have raised a few eyebrows amongst the critics and cognoscenti, and indeed they were generally on the slow side – but well-judged and eloquent, and consistent with his serious approach to the music. I felt that he was trying (sometimes a little too hard) to demonstrate that this work is not a light-hearted fairytale and to make us appreciate the depth of Mozart’s musical language. The playing of his own period-instrument orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien was impeccable and beautifully articulated throughout: in particular, the woodwind brought so much tone-colour and character in their solos and the strings played with warmth and elegance.

The cast was excellent both vocally and dramatically. Bernhard Richter (Tamino) was a suitably heroic Tamino with a lyrical but strong and resonant voice, and as Pamina, Julia Kleiter sang with beauty of tone and emotional depth, and also brought out a strong-willed character. Markus Werba was an excellent Papageno, both vocally and in his comic timing in the spoken dialogues. Mandy Fredrich as the Queen of Night brought off the vocal fireworks with aplomb, although she rather lacked the evil side of the character. The three ladies were also outstanding and charming, their voices beautifully balanced and in harmony and also playing an important role in development the drama, often on the stage even when they were not singing. Finally, Georg Zeppenfeld, an experienced Sarastro singer, brought gravity and authority to this enigmatic character. The chorus of the Vienna State Opera (especially the gentlemen) was also in fine voice.

All in all, it was a satisfying production, perfectly fitted to the ambience and the acoustics of the Felsenreitschule. Although the new artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, Alexander Pereira, has declared that each year all the operas will be new productions (with revivals only in exceptional cases), it would be a huge shame if this Zauberflöte were never seen again at this festival. Visually colourful and attractive but with a darker undercurrent, I think this production could become a Salzburg favourite and I sincerely hope that it will be revived there in future years.