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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Letters From Munich: Die Zauberflöte @39 And Still Magical

By Joseph So on July 16, 2017

Munich Opera's Die Zauberflöte (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)
Munich Opera’s Die Zauberflöte Matthew Polenzani as Tamino (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Matthew Polenzani, Olga Pudova, Michael Nagy, René Pape, Johan Reuter. August Everding, director. Asher Fisch, conductor. Bayerisches Staatsorchester. July 6, 2017, Nationaltheater, Munich.

The third opera on my five-show Munich jaunt was that old warhorse, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. It couldn’t have come a moment too soon. After seeing back-to-back the very intense Die Frau ohne Schatten and the super-crazy Die Gezeichneten, both directed by Polish Regie-Provocateur Krzysztof Warlikowski, I was tearing my hair out (figuratively) and wishing for lighter fare. Fortunately, the traditional Die Zauberflöte came to the rescue. This August Everding-Jürgen Rose production premiered in 1978—that’s 39 years ago, folks! Together with the Jürgen Rose-Otto Schenk Der Rosenkavalier, these are the two oldest productions still in service at the Munich Opera.

If I may allow myself a little trip down memory lane—I saw this Die Zauberflöte for the first time in May 1986. Due to travel woes, I hadn’t slept for something like 24 hours. It was a performance for “trade union members”—interesting! Can you imagine such a thing in Canada? All sold-out of course, but I managed to buy a ticket (regular price, not scalped) from someone on the front steps of the National-theater. Dead tired and disheveled from the travelling, I was in no condition to sit through a three-hour opera. But I was immediately drawn into the charms of this textbook-realistic Flute. Genies coming in on a cloud from the top of the stage; birds—okay, fake birds—flying in the air; real fire and real water. The singers were great. If memory serves, in the cast were Swedish tenor Claes Ahnsjö (Tamino), American soprano Patricia Wise (Pamina), and German bass Siegmund Nimsgern (Sarastro).

Now seeing this production again thirty-one years later, it remains as magical as ever, a respite from the operatic heavy-lifting of the past two shows. In fact, this opera is a veritable busman’s holiday for a critic. There’s no need to wrack one’s brain trying to decipher the meaning behind quirky little directorial whims invented by the hotshot Regie du jour. All one needs is to lean back and let the divine Mozart score work its magic. And miracle of miracles, the Nationaltheater has finally succumbed to popular demand, likely from us North American tourists, by installing air-conditioning, albeit turned off in the auditorium during the performance. No need now to surreptitiously take off the jacket when the house lights go down, even in 32 Celsius Munich heat!

The cast was Festival-quality, with several big names. American tenor Matthew Polenzani at 49 is on the mature side for Tamino, but his singing this evening remained youthful, delivering “Dies Bildnis” with princely elegance. Hanna Elisabeth Müller was lovely as Pamina. That said, on this occasion she didn’t have the requisite high piano at the top, even in “Ach, ich fuhls.” Russian coloratura Olga Pudova sang her signature role “Queen of the Night.” She’s not really a dramatic coloratura, without sufficient weight to her tone. She made up for it with brilliant staccati, and the modest-size voice blossomed to huge high F’s in both her arias.

Kudos to German baritone Michael Nagy as a charismatic and engaging Papageno. He has a flair for comedy, a requisite for anyone singing the bird-catcher. A natural actor with athletic ease, Nagy acted up a storm, and his firm and warm lyric baritone was an unalloyed pleasure. Also noteworthy was the Sarastro of veteran bass Rene Pape. Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the Munich Opera Intendant Nikolaus Bachler came onstage at the final curtain to announce that Pape was being honoured with the title of Kammersänger, totally deserving of course, only surprisingly belated. And to have a singer as distinguished as Johan Reuter (Wotan in the COC Die Walküre) as the Sprecher was luxury casting indeed.

Munich Opera's Die Zauberflöte (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)
Munich Opera’s Die Zauberflöte  Michael Nagy as Papageno (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

For a production that’s pushing 40, it looks remarkably handsome, with no fraying at the edges. What is fraying, at least metaphorically, is the use of “black face” on Monostatos and his troupe, a practice that has been abandoned by many opera houses from Covent Garden to the Met. To be sure, Mozart was the product of his time, and the 18th century Eurocentric worldview is reflected in the way the “ethnographic other” is portrayed in his operas. But such aesthetics are very different in 2017 compared with when this production premiered in 1978, let alone 1791 when the opera had its premiere. Since contemporary opera directors don’t think twice about updating the classics, perhaps it’s time for this venerable production to be brought into the 21st century?

No matter which side of the political fence you are on, this August Everding warhorse remains immensely popular with the audience. Incidentally, this is the only show I’ve encountered in my annual visit here the past ten years without surtitles, and it’s not clear why. Another interesting observation is that German audiences tend to sit on their collective hands when it comes to Mozart, also a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the traditional staging of the singer exiting just before the orchestra stops in Mozart? The only singer truly well applauded was the Queen of the Night. In any case, there was certainly no holding back of appreciation at the end, with all the soloists warmly received. When Herr Bachler came out to make the announcement about Rene Pape, the ovations turned endless. Stay tuned for my review of the fourth opera, Don Giovanni, put on by the Gärtnerplatz Staatstheater, tomorrow.

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#LUDWIGVAN

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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