A popular design conception among opera producers is that of no design at all: let’s leave the stage bare, as the backs of flats, the grimy rear brick wall, and the extensions of the proscenium arch into the playing area make such an atmospheric setting. This is the result of fetishising the stage itself, and also appears in the work of the Broadway-reared twin brothers, David and Christopher Alden. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have worked together for decades, along with the same team of designers, but never in such a stripped-down manner. The monster menacing Tamino was a shadow-puppet, with huge jaws silhouetted on the walls, but then became comically real as the three Ladies’ well-flung firework beheaded it, and a plump serpent head and neck thudded down on the bare boards.

Benjamin Bruns (Tamino) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Benjamin Bruns (Tamino)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The Ladies were vaudeville tarts in frilly skirts and epauletted jackets, while Nikolaj Borchev as Papageno was dressed in attire that closely matched the first Papageno of them all, Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s librettist and comic singer: in a frayed, feathery yellow linen suit, with a fine 18th century bird cage on his back. The shock of the evening was Thomas Ebenstein as Monostatos, blacked up to the rolling eyeballs and with a fuzzy wig the like of which has not been seen in the London since the Black and White Minstrels. But this was not London, or Paris, or New York (where I can’t imagine Leiser and Caurier getting away with such a thing) but Vienna, where there seems to be a greater tolerance for racial stereotyping. Monostatos’s henchmen were neatly attired in contemporary police uniforms, which magically sprouted spring-loaded tutus at the sound of Papageno’s bells, and they danced off like a Matthew Bourne corps de ballet. The animals who menace Tamino were of a larger scale than usual: a gorilla, a bear, and a splendid rhinoceros – playing the back legs of the rhino at the Staatsoper will no doubt grace some actor’s CV for years to come.

Iride Martínez (The Queen of the Night) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Iride Martínez (The Queen of the Night)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Iride Martínez sang the Queen of Night with accuracy and verve: her smallish but focused voice made light of the complex coloratura of both arias, and her top Fs in “Der Hölle Rache” were neither squeaked nor shrieked but sung out cleanly and clearly. It must be daunting to sing such a role in a house that has heard Edita Gruberová and Lucia Popp, but Martínez went at the high notes and the undulating triplets with the style of a Lipizzaner approaching a difficult bit of dressage, and with no drop in tempo.

To match the Queen’s top F6s, Sarastro needs equally sound and reliable bottom F2s four octaves below, and these Brindley Sherratt provided with consistency and power, along with the rest of his two hymn-like arias. Sherratt’s costume reminded me of the frock coat and waistcoat of the commissionaire who was sweltering in the full sunshine outside the nearby Hotel Bristol: in fact, all of Sarastro’s followers could have taken the place of the staff in a high class hotel without anyone noticing the difference.

Valentina Naforniţă (Pamina) and Nikolaj Borchev (Papageno) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Valentina Naforniţă (Pamina) and Nikolaj Borchev (Papageno)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

The voice of the afternoon (this was a matinee performance, on Pentecost Monday in an otherwise still, inactive and bakingly-hot Vienna) was that of Valentina Naforniţă as Pamina. She conveyed not only her suffering at imprisonment but also her separation and loss as Tamino appeared to ignore her: the resonances of Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo are clearly present in the role. At the moment of greatest despair, as the three boys come to her rescue, she rose to the occasion – on a flying harness, with the boys bobbing along beside her like the child in The Night Kitchen – and soared off, vocally and physically, into the wings.

Caurier and Leiser continued to use conventional pantomime tricks – a trapdoor, more fireworks – to get comic effects across, but overstepped the mark of taste once more in the way they flew Papageno offstage, alongside the boys, with a noose still round his neck. The final set of ordeals, undergone by both Tamino and (in breach of all Masonic tradition) Pamina were low-key descents into lighted pits, flickering with flames and then rippling with water, before re-emerging to the sound of the flute and the final resplendent, ritual-ridden chorus.