Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, January 26 2005

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Alex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus. Tamino: Paul Groves. Erste Dame: Ingela Bohlin. Zweite Dame: Marina Comparato. Dritte Dame: Ekaterina Gubanova. Papageno: Stéphane Degout. Papagena: Claire Ormshaw. Sarastro: Ain Anger. Monostatos: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Pamina: Mireille Delunsch. Königin der Nacht: Erika Miklosa. Der Sprecher: Olaf Bär. Drei Knaben: Soloists of the Tölzer Knabenchor. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Narrators: Dominique Blanc, Pascal Greggory.

A flute too far? Or just not enough magic?

If you’ve ever been to one of those “Olde Worlde” jousting places, in a plasterboard fort on an industrial estate in the suburbs, where you eat chicken with your fingers while aspiring actors pretend to joust, you’ll know what I mean: the louder the supporters of the blue team boo the success of the red team, the louder the red team’s fans cheer, and it all gets very noisy. It was a bit like that at the Bastille last night. Not, of course, that we were eating chicken and chips with our fingers – this wasn’t the Met; but it was the stormiest reception I’ve ever witnessed since the good old, raucous Saturday nights at the Palais Garnier, in pre-Bastille Days. (I have in mind a ballet of naked black men on roller skates in Die Fledermaus, for example.)

What was all the fuss about?

Well, despite having two productions in repertory (one by Bob Wilson, the other by Benno Besson), the new management have brought in the third in 15 years, this time conceived by La Fura dels Baus. The New York Times explains what this is: “Formed as a street theater group in 1979, it won international attention when it put on a lavish and imaginative show for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. Since then, it has also dabbled in opera, taking its F@ust, Version 3.0 to the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival and Berlioz's Damnation of Faust to the 1999 Salzburg Festival, when Mr. Mortier was its director.” Mr. Mortier is the new director of the Opéra National.

I had high hopes of something truly fresh and bright and original and interesting, the more so when I saw the set-less Bastille stage, with just racks of lights to left and right in the wings, and centre-stage, a dozen or so vast, white, inflatable mattresses. The overture struck up, zippy and bouncy as you might expect under Minkowski, and with distinctly “original” brass even if this was the Opéra’s own orchestra, and on walked a young man in street-wear. He got up on the mattresses, lay down to sleep, and disappeared down a crack.

So, this was going to be a “dream” staging, a now classic way of dealing with odd plots. The idea wasn’t bad: the troubled dreams of a youth, perhaps a bit under the weather and missing his girlfriend. Anyway, it got off to a good start. The young man reappeared as Tamino, the snake was a very clever snake of projected words like “anguish,” “fear,” etc, and the three girls appeared in silver cat-suits with gleaming neon breasts and pubic hair. Stéphane Degout, when he turned up as Papageno, was looking uncharacteristically sexy in red hair and diabolical red leather with a white feather cape. There were some jokey dance steps that hinted this would be a production with humour and charm. The giant projections continued, bright and computer-like. The Queen of the Night was spectacular, wheeled in, perched in a gleaming mirrored cape, at the end of the boom of a camera crane and suspended for her first aria way out over the orchestra pit, surrounded by the shard-like projections of a giant disco ball.

The mattresses had been intriguing, and were put to various uses as walls and screens, deflated and inflated, sometimes with dancers writhing inside. But after a while all the inflating and deflating and writhing and raising and lowering became wearisome, leading to heckling from the audience, and as to the rest, that sinking feeling of déjà vu set in. The stage hands and chorus were in white coats with badges – the (now familiar) hospital, psychiatric, probably. Inflatables: weren’t they the big thing in design ten years ago? Papageno in leather, Monostatos a biker… And with so much going on – rather noisily – the singing became almost incidental (more on that later).

Worst of all, the familiar spoken dialogues were replaced by texts in French by a Catalan poet, presumably about 14 years old since they sounded, as they were intoned into microphones by actors on tennis umpires’ chairs at either side of the pit, like the deepest musings on life, death, reality and illusion of a spotty teenager. We could all churn out the same stuff, you know: “Life and death… joy and grief… comedy and tragedy… angel and demon… the devil? Look in the mirror… spectator, you are the accomplice…” These were the worst texts I’d heard in the theatre since L’Amour de Loin. That, above all, is I think what got the audience’s goat: paying to be insulted in corny prose. You had to know the plot to follow the story, and Mozart’s arias were left suspended, disconnected, in mid-nothing.

The cast, as I mentioned, came to be pretty irrelevant. They were mixed. Mireille Delunsch gave us the one moment of real beauty of the evening in her sad, central aria. Degout is one of the best Papagenos of the moment. Groves is strong, bright and masculine but has some trouble steadying his top notes. Erika Miklosa was plucky and fun, wore the best costume and hit all the notes, but had a warbly vibrato. The three girls were just fine, the three boys too. Ain Anger was dreadful: why do opera houses so often cast Sarastros without anything near the bottom notes? Olaf Bär was one of the most convincing voices of the evening, but of course had little to sing. Overall, the performance was not quite good enough, and in such a huge house was, as you might expect in Mozart, underpowered.

There were, to borrow from Rossini once again, some fine moments – mostly visually – but some mauvais quarts d’heure. Not at all the worst production I’ve seen (and at the Met nobody booed Aïda when I was there), but one that ran out of ideas and didn’t deliver the magic. Not worth all the hoo-hah, certainly - something of a non-event.

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