Premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, Simon McBurney’s Die Zauberflöte is back at Dutch National Opera this month to open their new season. Nearly six years later and into its third run here, this production continues to surprise and delight aficionados and beginners alike.

Lilian Farahani (Papagena) and Thomas Oliemans (Papageno)
© Michel Schnater

Reminiscing about the colourful storybook sets designed by Karel Appel for this same stage over two decades ago, the gentleman sitting to my left was, at first, bewildered at the sight of the dark and austere stage sets: a large metallic platform hanging from cables, with a glass cabin tucked on one side of the stage from which a sound effects operator works her magic in full view of the audience. The young couple sitting behind me, on their first night out at the opera, was especially baffled by the modern imagery: Papageno more homeless tramp than bird-catcher, the Three Ladies in combat trousers and boots, the Queen of the Night an old woman so weak she traverses the stage in a wheelchair.  At the end of the performance, the three of them cheered profusely, wowed as much by the music as by the stagecraft. 

The virtuosity with which McBurney manages to mix and blend multiple media into a seamless, often surprising spectacle is admirable. Intricate videos by Finn Ross are at their most impressive in Tamino and Pamina’s trials by fire and water, but the image of actors simply flapping white A4 sheets in the air to emulate Papageno’s birds is just as memorable. A detailed actors’ direction contributes to make the theatrical experience complete. It looks very demanding physically; soloists run, jump, climb, slide or hang in the air. The whole cast manages this precisely-timed work-out with flying colours.

Nina Minasyan (The Queen of the Night)
© Michel Schnater

With a few notable exceptions, the cast is the same as last summer’s performances in Aix-en-Provence. Overall, it is the most completely satisfying of the three casts heard here. With his innate sense of comedy, Thomas Oliemans’ Papageno had the public wrapped around his little finger. Beyond the comedian, the singer knows how to use the nuances of his warm baritone to portray a character full of humanity. His Papageno made us laugh but moved us too in his frustrating quest for a partner. And when he was finally united with his Papagena (Lilian Farahani), the public gave them a thunderous round of applause. Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s lyric tenor, resonant and stylish, made for an ever so princely Tamino, even when he has to sing “Dies Bildnis ist ist bezaubernd schön” in his boxer shorts. As Pamina, Mari Eriksmoen combined a graceful stage presence with a youthful, silvery timbre. Hers was a more assertive princess than most and one suspected she could well find the courage to face up to Sarastro. This didn’t make her distress any less poignant and her “Ach, ich fühl's” brought a lump in one’s throat.

Nina Minasyan is a welcome newcomer to this production. Her Queen of the Night may be wheelchair-bound, but there was no hint of frailty in her singing and even at the role's stratospheric heights, her timbre remained surprisingly round. Her retinue was luxuriously cast with Judith van Wanroij, Rosanne van Sandwijk and Helena Rasker as particularly lascivious Ladies. With his towering stage presence and dressed in the grey business suit of a modern cult leader, Dmitry Ivashchenko was an intimidating but magnanimous Sarastro, his handsome bass allying flexibility with plenty of resonant depth. Maarten Koningsberger was suitably austere as the Speaker and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a particularly abject Monostatos. 

Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Tamino)
© Michel Schnater

Making his house debut, conductor Antonello Manacorda led the musicians of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in a keenly detailed performance. Flautist Hanspeter Spannring and Jan-Paul Grijpink at the glockenspiel were even regularly dragged onto the stage by Tamino and Papageno to perform, to the great pleasure of the audience, adding to the overall impression that one was witnessing jubilant teamwork.