Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at Staatsoper Berlin



Yuval Sharon’s brand-new production of Die Zauberflöte at Staatsoper Berlin marks the first new production of this beloved opera by Mozart at this lovingly-restored baroque theatre on Unter den Linden in a quarter of a century following August Everding’s storybook production which, by the way, is still retained in the company’s repertoire.

Mr Sharon is doing well in Germany, it seems. He has enjoyed a string of successes recently including Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival (which I found very much to my liking), Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Bockenheimer Depot Frankfurt, The Cunning Little Vixen at Staatstheater Karlsruhe and now this brand-new production of Die Zauberflöte at Staatsoper Berlin encompassing marionette theatre, flying singers and so much more.

During the playing of Die Zauberflöte’s well-loved overture, a surprise was immediately handed out to members of the audience when they found themselves in another theatre, a puppet theatre, to boot, adorned with pastel-green Corinthian-fluted columns while gracefully being transported to a childlike dream-world conjuring up all sorts of weird and wonderful things with Prince Tamino (truly handsome, of course, and handsomely sung by Julian Prégardien) being chased by a giant yellow-coloured serpent. 

But when we meet this princely character he’s seen in this inspiring and well-conceived marionette production suspended in mid-air while the tree of knowledge representing good and evil appears on the stage from the wings - the necessary apple falling at the right time. And then with a puff of magical smoke the serpent quickly disappears - the first obstacle that Tamino has to overcome on his quest to gain the hand of the lovely Pamina. But to become worthy of her, the second one to navigate relates to the Trials of Wisdom in Sarastro’s temple.

The first challenge proved easy-peasy with the help of the Three Ladies, attendants to the Queen of the Night, the roles so admirably sung by Adriane Queiroz, Natalia Skrycka and Constance Heller. They arrive just in the nick of time appearing to kill the serpent. As they find the prince a bit tasty, they hang around hoping for their moment. But nothing comes of it. Each one, though, tries terribly hard to convince the others to leave but after arguing the toss they reluctantly pack in together.

A thrilling start to the opera with the plot quickly thickening when Papageno (superbly and comically played by well-known Austrian stage and television actor, Florian Teichtmeister) turns up describing his life as a bird-catcher and boasting about his killing of the serpent with his bare hands. The Three Ladies suddenly reappear and instead of giving Papageno wine, cake and figs as is their usual custom they give him water, a stone and padlock his mouth as a warning not to tell lies. On the other hand, Tamino is given a portrait of the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, with whom he falls instantly in love manifested in the aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ (This image is enchantingly beautiful) sung beautifully by Mr Prégardien.

Only the two baddies of the story - the evil-looking Sarastro and his monotonous blackamoor slave, Monostatos - stay firmly on the stage but the deuce playing their parts certainly lit it up. Russian bass Grigory Shkarupa as Sarastro delivered an excellent reading of his role harbouring one of those lovely rich and endearing voices that you find in the Russian Orthodox Church while Berlin-born tenor, Florian Hoffmann (Monostatos), sang equally well but was bizarrely dressed (but suiting his character nonetheless) portrayed as a child’s wind-up tin soldier. And the light of Papageno’s life, Papagena, outrageously dressed, too, but in the best tradition of the role, was sung with humour and relish by Norwegian soprano, Victoria Randem, who excelled in her big moment when formulating her true love for the bird-catcher.

Spoken dialogue passages, adding an extra dimension to the overall production, were pre-recorded by children and heard off-stage while members of the chorus (directed by American-born chorus-master, Martin Wright) were effectively heard off-stage, too. 

Every scene was extravagant and vividly portrayed especially the Queen of the Night’s grand entrance in act II featuring Nicola Proksch looking attractive, dazzling and furious, putting in an effortless and crystal-clear performance ordering her daughter Pamina to kill Sarastro, her nemesis. The good and the evil at work which, I guess, sums up the story of Die Zauberflöte. Looking stern and slightly unloved, Sarastro showed his high status in society by arriving in a chariot pulled by three lions while bedecked in gold-covered clothing and surrounded by his team of black-star minions rushing all over the show like blue-ass flies while the two priests, dressed in long-flowing black cassocks, found themselves as jack-in-the-box characters.

The temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature were conceived in a pyramidal shape (no doubt a reference to the Masonic Brotherhood) conjuring up a futuristic world where Saturday morning picture hero Flash Gordon comes face to face with Star War’s antagonist, Darth Vador. This production certainly made its mark and set your mind wandering all over the show in a Walter Mitty sort of way who would, I’m sure, relish the scene when Tamino goes to the rescue of Pamina (to pocket! to pocket!) at any cost. 

A delicate and tender scene unfolded when the Three Child Spirits lead Tamino to Sarastro’s temple, promising that if he remains patient, wise and steadfast, he’ll succeed in rescuing Pamina. The Old Priest (David Oštrek) explains the virtues to Tamino telling him that Sarastro’s benevolent and not so evil as the Queen of the Night makes out and therefore he should not trust her. 

When Tamino approaches the temple in a spirit of friendship, he toots on the magic flute and a forest animal-themed carousel quickly rises from below stage while Pamina and Papagena find themselves trapped by Monostatos. And when Papageno plays his magic bells the animals spring alive and, completely enraptured by the music, they join Monostatos in a wild and eccentric dance until disappearing from sight. 

The third (and final) obstacle that Tamino has to overcome arrives when the Three Child Spirits appear for the third time to save Pamina from killing herself with her mother’s dagger out of disappointed love for her prince. She joins her hero to accompany him through the fire-and-water test and, protected by the magic flute, they overcome their obstacle in the best fairy-tale tradition and survive to live happily ever after. And here Mr Sharon pulls another big surprise - it’s his game, though! Prince Charming and his wonderful bride are seen entering a modern-day kitchen with all the necessary mod cons working in close harmony and domestic bliss with Tamino at the cooking range and Pamina at the kitchen sink. Got it?

Now - that really is a true fairy-tale ending. It’s equivalent to pantomime for German kids! And a nice touch emerged right at the end of the show when a group of youngsters were seen pulling the strings retelling the story of Die Zauberflöte in a family-orientated marionette performance.

Mexican-American conductor, Alondra de la Parra, currently music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the first female principal conductor of an Australian symphony orchestra, took charge of a good honest performance that found great favour all round.

On a historical note, Die Zauberflöte was composed for the Viennese suburban theatre, Freihaus-Theatre auf der Wieden, in which Mozart enjoyed a close relationship as it was managed by his good friend and fellow Freemason, Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto. The opera received its première on 30th September 1791 with the composer conducting with Herr Schikaneder cast as the bird-catcher, Papageno. Two months later Mozart was dead. However, Die Zauberflöte took Vienna by storm and the work’s popularity rapidly spread throughout Europe. Today, it remains the third most-frequently performed opera worldwide.

As both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, Die Zauberflöte harbours a host of masonic symbols and rites. For instance, ‘number three’ comes up several times inasmuch as there are Three Trials, Three Ladies, Three Children and even Three Doors to Sarastro’s palace. It’s also possible that Sarastro himself was modelled on the prominent Viennese Freemason, Ignaz von Born. And with many of Mozart’s early operas, Mozart composed the overture to Die Zauberflöte last. Surprisingly, too, it opens with three wholesome chords in the key of E-flat major that just happen to have three flats.

But such is the popularity of Die Zauberflöte in Berlin (and in the whole of Germany, of course) this may be the reason why Staatsoper are running with a couple of productions of it. The late August Everding’s acclaimed 1994 production returns to the repertoire next April for a handful of performances (I want to be there!) and the new production by the new kid-on-the-block - which has truly hit the mark with family audiences judging by the performance I attended - carries on.

Interestingly, the sets and costumes for Herr Everding’s version are based on designs by the architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, dating from the early part of the 19th century. One of Berlin’s most distinguished architects, he was responsible for the reconstruction of the Berliner Dom and also designed what is now the Konzerthaus just round the corner from Staatsoper in Gendarmenmarkt built on the ruins of the National Theatre which opened as the new Schauspielhaus in the summer of 1821 hosting the première of Carl Maria von Weber’s romantic opera, Der Freischütz.

The creative team working on Die Zauberflöte proved a brilliant and enterprising crew. Mimi Lien’s colourful and abstract-looking sets and Belgian avant-garde fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s costumes mirrored Salzburg marionettes and the Bauhaus-era ballets of Oskar Schlemmer while Reinhard Traub’s extremely effective lighting and Hannah Wasileski contrasting video sequences would take some beating.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Conductor: Alondra de la Parra (Staatskapelle Berlin)
Chorus-master: Martin Wright (Staatsopernchor Berlin)
Assistant chorus-master: Anna Milukova
Director: Yuval Sharon
Set designer: Mimi Lien assisted by Mark Löhrer
Costume designer: Walter Van Beirendonck
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Video designer: Hannah Wasileski
Sound designer: Markus Böhm
Sarastro: Grigory Shkarupa
Prince Tamino: Julian Prégardien
Pamina: Serena Sáenz
Papageno: Florian Teichtmeister
Papagena: Victoria Randem
Queen of the Night: Nicola Proksch
Speaker: David Oštrek
Monostatos: Florian Hoffmann,
The Three Ladies: Adriane Queiroz, Natalia Skrycka, Constance Heller
First armed man: Jun-Sung Han
Second armed man: Frederic Jost
First priest: Andrés Moreno García
Second priest: David Oštrek
Dancers: Nikos Fragkou, Maximilian Reisinger, Joschka Schneider, Adriana Thiel, Paulina Tovo, Valentina Zick

Tony Cooper



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