When last spring the Staatsoper presented its first new Zauberflöte for 25 years, excitement and expectation turned to disappointment and widespread rejection of the new production by Yuval Sharon. The boos at the premiere were reflected in reviews using words like “debacle” and “disaster”. The main idea in his production is that the characters are puppets: large visible ropes suspend the singers in mid-air, and manoeuvre them when standing on the stage. The dialogue is not spoken by singers, but declaimed by child-actors, and heard through loudspeakers. During this dialogue, the singers are lifeless dolls, barely moving with stereotyped gestures; when they sing, they find their human dimension and true voice. The only exception is Papageno, interpreted by an actor with no opera training, who speaks and sings with his natural voice, and is always himself. This choice goes back to the origins of the work: Emanuel Schikaneder (the first Papageno) was an actor, and not an opera singer.

Florian Teichtmeister (Papageno) © Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)
Florian Teichtmeister (Papageno)
© Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)

The visuals are inspired by pop culture and toys: Tamino is a replica of Astro Boy (costumes by Walter Van Beirendonck), the hero of a Japanese manga series; Pamina is his double, with cartoon blonde hair and a red bow on her head; Monostatos is a toy robot, with a wind-up key in his back; the two priests are Jack-in-the-box toys, jumping up when needed. (Some audience members, dressed in the same theme, showed that at least some Berliners appreciated this take.)

Singers are flown across the stage, often singing mid-air and involved in acrobatics (stunts are employed for the wildest gymnastic feats). At the end, the mystery is revealed: the opera was performed in a toy theatre, the puppets operated by the three genies and their friends. It was an interesting, wild take on a cherished masterpiece, visually colourful and busy (at times, a bit too much), but engaging and original, with a well-defined vision and intent.

Julian Prégardien (Tamino) © Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)
Julian Prégardien (Tamino)
© Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)

The more philosophical aspects of The Magic Flute were lost among the toys, the focus on the childish amazement at the fairy tale. Sharon did not shy away from the most problematic aspects of the opera: the invisible puppeteers discussed the glaring racism and misogyny during dialogues which were not translated in the surtitles, debating the point of representing such a work in the modern day. The result was a bold but refreshingly non-preachy production, modern and entertaining, which refrained from forcing societal issues into the story.

Alondra de la Parra led the Staatskapelle Berlin in a lively reading of the score, keeping the singers together with the orchestra even when they were floating around, with some minor exceptions. The Staatsopernchor, singing from the pit, turned out to be perhaps the best performers of the evening, their precision accompanied by thoughtful dynamics and beautiful phrasing.

Tamino was Julian Prégardien, his tenor heroic and elegant at the same time. His “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was beautiful and exciting, his high notes well placed, his phrasing remarkable. He hit a bit of a rough patch towards the end of Act 1, but came back with renewed energy and beautiful sound. As Pamina, Serena Sáenz Molinero was a lovely surprise for me. Her soprano was sweet and tender, her high notes easy and natural. At 25 years old, her voice still seems in need of some “ripening”, but her interpretation of “Ach, ich fühl’s” was moving and emotional. Her “Tamino mein” was absolutely ravishing. The following scene, the trials of fire and water, was one of the most original and successful of the whole production: the two protagonists have to make dinner in a modern, simple fitted kitchen – the hardest trial for two young lovers is represented by domestic life and everyday routine.

Serena Sáenz Molinero (Pamina) and Florian Teichtmeister (Papageno) © Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)
Serena Sáenz Molinero (Pamina) and Florian Teichtmeister (Papageno)
© Monika Rittershaus (February 2019)

The Queen of the Night was Nicola Proksch; in her first aria she tended to rush a bit in the coloratura, and her unfortunate placement at the bottom of the stage affected her projection, minor flaws in her performance. She absolutely nailed the second act “Der Hölle Rache”, with fast coloratura and perfectly brilliant super-high notes.

Grigory Shkarupa sang Sarastro; his bass was deep and well projected, but lacked elegance, with a tendency to shout at times. Actor Florian Teichtmeister, suffering from a cold, was a funny Papageno, his singing a bit approximate, but effective. His über-famous duet with Victoria Randem as Papagena was charming as expected.

All the other singers were uniformly good and committed in their interpretation, even in the hardest of circumstances – the Three Ladies were suspended enclosed in the same bizarre fat-suit made of three breasts, and Monostatos, as a robot, was constantly walking around in tiny little steps and jerking motions. Honourable mentions to the three boys, who showed remarkable professionalism and beautiful sound.

****1