Never have we seen so much advance publicity given to an opera in Zurich: the media buzz for the new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was nothing short of legion. It included a double-page spread in the local daily, ‘the making of’ webpages devoted to the activity in the practice and costume rooms, an interview with the director and conductor. News of it was everywhere.

Sen Guo (The Queen of the Night) © Hans Jörg Michel
Sen Guo (The Queen of the Night)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Doubtless, the musical performance was well worth the hype. Under the capable young German conductor Cornelius Meister, the Orchestra La Scintilla showed its solid mastery of period instruments in consistently even pacing that gave the lyrics their deserved attention. The orchestra’s superb solo oboist, Philipp Mahrenholz, set the upward five-note scale that is the character Papageno’s tonal trademark and something like the opera’s USP, but the rest of the players also showed themselves as upbeat and in their element. Mozart’s score shone through handsomely, and they responded with aplomb to the occasionally unexpected nuances that gave a moment’s pause or added to the suspense.

In the opera's narrative, a great divide falls between the feathered and glittery Queen of the Night on the one hand, and Sarastro, reigning Priest of the Sun, on the other. The woman wants power; he’s dead set against it. He has Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, in his power, and the good-natured Tamino is to free her, assisted by the birdcatcher, Papageno. If Tamino succeeds, and shows proof of courage and determination through the ritual of the tests he must pass, he is promised her hand in marriage. All should be well that ends well, you’d think.

Mozart himself conducted Die Zauberflöte at its première in 1791 in Vienna, the role of Papageno sung by none other than Emanuel Schikaneder, the opera’s librettist and the director of the theatre. The opera enjoyed no fewer than 83 performances in its first year, and even today, is considered one of the most and loved and oft-performed works of the operatic repertoire, while hardly just the fairy tale it would first appear. In fact, the work can be interpreted on a far larger scale of human psychology, grappling as it does with the conflict between good and evil, and the very true-to-life entanglements of love and honour. Overriding, too, are the big questions: What am I? How do I deal with the various challenges that face me? How and what must I prove? We can justifiably marvel that all this came at a time when Mozart’s contemporaries were still writing light opera whose characters were two-dimensional mock-ups by comparison.

Ruben Drole (Papageno) and Mari Eriksmoen (Pamina) © Hans Jörg Michel
Ruben Drole (Papageno) and Mari Eriksmoen (Pamina)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Supplementary texts were penned into the original libretto, presumably to modernize the late 18th century lyrics. Notably, both Papageno and evil oddball Monostatos – in a thick hair suit under a painter’s jumpsuit as he seduces the helpless Pamina – recite monologues that revolve around the value of the carnal. Monostatos goes as far as to say his search is for his own individuality in the context of ‘globalisation as an all-absorbing contextuality of the trivial integration of my “otherness”’.

The music, of course, is celestial. Mozart had the innate − some would offer godlike − ability to always find a musical gesture fitting to a given situation. And he took generous liberties with the styles of presentation, using traditional aria, dramatic fabric, popular tunes and bel canto in a mix that never fails to strike what the composer Aaron Copland called a “breath-taking rightness never since duplicated”.

No question, the same accolade applies here, for the voices in Zurich were compelling overall. Swiss tenor Mauro Peter was a delightful and convivial Tamino whose strong voice resonated long after he left the stage. In his line “might this emotion be love”, his last word “Liebe” was just pure gold. Word had it that his Pamina (Mari Eriksmoen) was indisposed at the première, but if so, did a fine job despite the circumstances. Likewise, Papageno (Ruben Drole) gave a strong – if somewhat too agitated – vocal performance. His voice and his character travelled the farthest, in contrast to the Queen of the Night (Sen Guo), whose voice was somehow harnessed and quieter than her major profile deserved. She duly hit her highs Fs, but she was less than an equal match for the likes of Sarastro (Christof Fischesser), who stood like an intriguing mix of powerful, conniving and oddly fatherly. Much had been made of the Queen’s feather dress, which was as elaborate as it was gigantic, but the attending Three Ladies (Alexandra Tarniceru, Julia Riley, Judit Kutasi) opening and closing their own meter-wide feather fans like hungry oysters, saw the elaborate costumes turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Sadly, the brilliant overture, meant to distance the audience from the real world and settle us into “a place apart” prior to the narrative, was itself just teeming with action. A revolving stage (the third here I’ve seen in as many operas in Zurich this season) pushed scattered piles of firewood and loose branches around into view, as it did actors moving wares – seemingly for no reason – in and out an innocuous dwelling’s windows. There were even robotic chickens. With such unmotivated chaos, one was verifiably frazzled even before Act I began.

But the distractions duly persisted. The Three Ladies sported the same kind of transsexual facial hair that made each one resemble a modified Conchita Wurst. They mounted and ‘rode’ the loved-starved Papageno, who cavorted like a Rieperbahn drunkard, all of it cashing in at little more than hackneyed stereotypes. I was left wishing more had been left to the imagination.

Judit Kutasi, Julia Riley and Alexandra Tarniceru (The Three Ladies) © Hans Jörg Michel
Judit Kutasi, Julia Riley and Alexandra Tarniceru (The Three Ladies)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Director Tatjana Gürbaca said pointedly in an interview that no one was trying to be “other” for the sole sake of the “otherness” here, but the Zurich staging felt as contrived and self-conscious as any I’ve seen in a long time. One likes to see characters move on the stage for a reason, but here, the choir – wedged between the “dwelling” and the orchestra pit, too often stood in a row two or three deep, facing the audience like a school class singing for the parents. And all – but all – of the stage gestures were highly exaggerated. Who likes the guy at a party who’s offended by some argument and points emphatically at his big open mouth, suggesting he’s about to spew? This production was full of such antics, may of them so brazen that they verged on infantile: pulling a black brassiere out of an open fire, Papageno’s wearing it like eyeglasses, the rotating stage jiggling back and forth when he was hopelessly drunk. And the Zorro cloak held up with only its mask and hat, with no real body inside? To what “condition” did that allude?

The costumes (Silke Willrett) were boisterous and wild. The Three Ladies were made even more awkward by ill-fitting garments in unlikely combinations of glitzy fabrics and tutus. At the end of Act II, Papagena (Deanne Breiwick), had to sport a breastplate in the form of a big plastic bosoms. Why that, if not for show alone? Just as, in the very last scene, the daisy chain of Sarastro’s loyals plod across the stage like the attendees of an 80th birthday fête at a senior residence. And this, while their victorious leader stands among all the singers in the red silk and long tails of a circus ringmaster’s waistcoat. Why, the circus, of course!

Die Zauberflöte may well be a profound statement about the Human Condition, but its staging in Zurich serves more to distract from the music and the messages than it does to support and embellish them. In short: your music, Herr Mozart, is stunning, and I find it quite remarkable that someone asks you to take such a back seat.