The Magic Flute was the brainchild of Emanuel Schikaneder, an extraordinarily talented man of popular theatre in Vienne in the latter half of the 18th century. That happens to coincide with the life of Mozart and Schikaneder wanted to put together a money-making singspiel based on his libretto for his Theatre auf der Wieden in a suburb of Vienna.
The opera with singing and spoken dialogue had other contributors to the libretto including fairy tales and a healthy dose of the philosophy of freemasonry. The Magic Flute opened on September 30, 1791 and was a big hit. It would almost certainly have joined the countless other hits of the era on the dusty shelves or dustbins of history were it not for the magical music composed by Mozart.
Some 230 years later, the Paris Opera has produced the work in an empty Opéra Bastille trying to observe some Covid-19 protocols. The effects of the disease are everywhere, and the news delivers frightful numbers of infections and deaths. Director Robert Carsen’s 2014 production zeroed in on the idea of death in general and in the opera in particular and it inadvertently takes full cognizance of what is happening during the current pandemic. The idea and the reality of the death of millions of people is all around and a more appropriate production can hardly be found.
In the opening scene our hero Tamino collapses near some mounds in the clearing of the forest. The mounds will turn out to be graves. The nasty Monostatos who will try to rape the lovely Pamina is a gravedigger. Graves will appear several times in the production as will a human skeleton and a skull. No one will miss the reference to the gravediggers’ scene from Hamlet when a skull is greeted with the words “Alas, Poor Yorick!” The appearance of coffins, black costumes and funereal veils will impress on us the idea of death.
Carsen uses modern costumes almost entirely black or white in conjunction with death as well as the moral lessons of the opera. The Magic Flute is a morality tale. Light, white, love, virtue, truth, and good are posed against darkness, black, hatred, vice, lies and evil. That is what fairy tales tell us and the freemasons, we suppose, stand for.
In the background we have the projection of a green forest. Its colours will change to brown, snow-covered white and barren to indicate the passage of time and the change of the seasons.
An aggressive morality tale amidst graves and coffins could be a fail-poof formula to keep people away from a production even during a lockdown. This production is nothing of the kind. It stands as an interesting view of the opera and a sheer pleasure to watch and hear.
The cast may not be from the top tier of singers, but their performance is superb. Tenor Cyrille Dubois is the heroic Tamino and he does a fine job in the role. He pursues the lovely Pamina, sung by soprano Julie Fuchs with a delicious voice and youthful ardour.
The comic relief is provided by the agile and irreverent Papageno of bass-baritone Alex Esposito who has made a career of singing comic character roles and he makes it perfectly obvious why in this performance.
Soprano Nina Minasyan is the Queen of the Night and she handles the regal rage and leaps across the two octaves of her mainstay aria. Sarastro (bass Nicolas Testé) is her opposite as the symbol of love and wisdom that he displays with sonorous beauty in his fine arias "O Isis und Osiris" and ‘In diesen heil'gen Hallen.”
The grave-digging, shovel-carrying and would-be rapist Monostatos is in the hands of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Carsen does not overdo him because someone who tries to rape a woman does not need to be exaggerated.
The orchestra and chorus of the Paris National Opera were conducted by Cornelius Meister.
Performing to an empty house during a pandemic has definite drawbacks. All involved, including the orchestra try to wear masks. That works for the strings, but the wind instrument players can’t very well blow in a flute. The chorus wears masks and sings with gusto. I could not tell if they were pre-recorded or if they managed to sound that good with their mouths covered. The main singers did not wear masks and social distancing was not exactly adhered to.
Whether you absorb the masonic virtues of strength, goodness, veracity, love and wisdom is up to you. You should enjoy this production done under difficult circumstanced, regardless of your moral standards.
The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is streamed by the Opéra national de Paris until February 22, 2021 with some cast changes. For more information visit: https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/products/the-magic-flute or https://www.operadeparis.fr/