More specifically, director Robert Carsen seemed to be channeling Tim Burton’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas) penchant for Grand Guignol as it might be applied to a production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
On first glance, set designer Michael Levine has imagined Sarastro’s realm to be a verdant forest that is all realistic projections (courtesy of videographer Martin Eidenberger) and rolling mounds of (slightly singer-dampening) Astro-turf. A series of scrim effects and drops, and a runway around the orchestra pit give eye-pleasing depth and variety to the concept. Mr. Eidenberger contributes several witty video effects, including a projection of trees that gradually get filled by contented birds, and the ominous huge black doors that confront Tamino in the Speaker scene. One notable misfire featured an uncomfortable Pamina’s face projected live and aria-long in an excruciating, stage-filling Cinemascope close-up as Tamino sings of her portrait. Too, there is eventual confusion of the seasons, since we go back and forth from summer to winter and back at will.
The serenity of the lush foliage is offset from the git-go by a macabre newly dug grave that occupies stage left. When Tamino sings of the “dragon” he refers to the mound of dirt and, I presume, death-as-dragon pursuing him (and us all, shades of Lent!). Yet when the ladies later boast of killing the beast, they comically haul out a large stuffed snake with nary a hint of a ‘vanquishing death’ metaphor. But their business with the reptile was at least funny, and humor was in short supply in Mr. Carsen’s interpretation. With a profusion of recent Flute productions, Robert seemed rather to be striving to do something, anything “different.”
Sarastro’s subjects were somber grave-diggers, looking like storm troopers brandishing shovels. Papageno/a was a backpacker (or vagrant) that was indistinguishable from a weary student tourist schlepping their meager life’s belongings from the train station to a youth hostel. Pamina in her demure white frock and Tamino in his 80-s white disco suit, resembled two cleaned up barefoot flower children, in contrast to the elegant-if-unsubtle “evil” of the rather sexy black evening attire of the Queen and her Three Ladies. Petra Reinhardt’s costumes were professional-looking and consistent, even if they were not always a helpful illumination of the characters.
We first encounter the ensemble in modern dress as they advance up the aisles during the overture to encircle the pit on runway and apron as they listen to the orchestra with rapt attention. Are they indeed the chorus? Supers? Unfettered Berlin Phil Groupies? Who knows? As soon as the curtain rises, they scoop up poor Tamino and carry him around the stage on his back as he is ‘chased by the dragon.’ Correction, as he is ‘menaced by the inert mound of earth.’ But they soon drop him like a hot Kartoffel and the prince is left trying to appear frightened of the dirt. This was as dumb as it sounds.
When Papageno and Tamino are first ‘isolated’ they are (re-)discovered on stage descending on ladders suggesting they are beneath the earth. . .except those pesky above-ground trees soon appeared. No matter, for what claimed our attention was a scattering of coffins about the stage, perhaps as product placement to advertise the graveyard scene from this summer’s Don Giovanni. Papagena materializes as a decomposing corpse in bridal dress after she forces open a coffin lid and clambers out. Eew. How could Papageno resist her? And the (non) birdman has no trouble availing himself of a bottle of wine when another burial box is revealed to hold a vintner’s treasure.
For the trials by Fire and Water, the lovers must pass through a gobo-lit field of shroud- encased bodies (the covers are ripped off as the chorus sits up and sings). There are a few savvy innovative touches. It is established in Act Two that the Queen and Sarastro are in fact a loving couple in collusion to enlighten and unite the lovers. And the Three Boys are extremely well used, appearing first in soccer uniforms kicking around a ball (okay, so it ends up in Scene One’s open grave). Later they come dressed identical to Sarastro, Papageno, and (God bless ‘em) even bravely show up barefoot in copies of Pamina’s white dress.
Having accepted the backpacker concept, the bird couple comically pulled out baby clothes from their backpacks during their famous duet. Still, “Magic” was in short supply, and while I admire Robert Carsen and have greatly enjoyed his work on many an occasion, this night I wanted to say “Bob, lighten up, wouldya?” The musical side of the house was another matter
The Berlin Philharmonic remains one of the world’s great orchestras and they did not disappoint. Under the supple leadership of Simon Rattle, the old familiar strengths were always in evidence: effortless ensemble, luminous strings, rich winds, incisive percussion, and solid gold brass. It was hard to believe that the overture could sound “fresh” again but Maestro Rattle managed exactly that with a wonderfully detailed and beautifully layered reading. It has to be said, Rattle indulged in some rubato, allowed some appoggiaturas, and crafted a cadenza or two that were not traditional. While this was interesting enough, such liberties did take the forward steam and rhythmic propulsion out of more than one or two phrases that may have been better off going on their merry way.
Pavol Breslik was a remarkably effective Tamino, indeed he was all one could wish. Mr. Breslik is boyish and handsome, he is a seasoned stage performer, and his sweetly pliant lyric tenor is ideal for the prince. If he occasionally croons an upper note, his instrument showed ample presence in the house although, since he has the first sung phrase of the opus, he was the first to be affected by mid-stage placement on the rolling artificial grass. He (and the others) coped well enough by pouring on a little more volume but truth to tell the further forward the soloists were placed, the more ping and zing they had in the house.
Kate Royal is a well-regarded artist with a limpid, haunting tone produced with security and admirable musicality. Either by choice or default, Ms. Royal’s Pamina seemed too often a wilting victim which left me longing for more point and sass to balance Pavlo’s determined, bright-voiced hero. Kate was done no favors by having to sing her first utterances pretty much to the flies as the chorus bore her aloft face-up (pursued by the Moor) as they had Tamino. Alas, she never had another chance to make a solid first vocal impression and later Sir Simon rushed her a bit through her showpiece “Ah, ich f¸hl’s.”
James Elliott’s solid (if slightly dry-voiced) Monastatos was perhaps least well-served by the concept which reduced him to the evening’s sole baddie. It seemed too little too late when, his having crumpled alone on stage in a desolate fetal position, the others help him to his feet and offer forgiveness. Ana Durlovsky had the unenviable job of standing in for the well-loved firebrand vocal artist Simon Kermes. Not to worry, Ms. Durlovksy’s ample, warm tone and note perfect coloratura won her admirers and triumphantly carried the day.
Michael Nagy had all the goods to deliver a world class Papageno: a burnished, responsive baritone of especial beauty, and a cheeky, assured stage comportment that had just the right moxie. What he finally sadly lacked was the right characterization to truly triumph. There was no eccentricity, nothing of “the bird” about him and as he was made to refer to his “birds” as he brandished a picnic cooler, I wondered if he must be peddling frozen chickens. Regula M¸hlemann’s chirpy, attractive Papagena was at least afforded a more fantastical beginning before becoming a boring backpacker.
There were marvelous instances of luxury casting. What a treat to hear Jose van Dam in the late autumn of his distinguished career, gifting us with the most memorable Speaker-Tamino exchange we are ever likely to hear. And have the three ladies ever been cast with top tier soloists the likes of the radiant, clear soprano of Annick Massis; the smoky, alluring mezzo of Magdalena Kozena; and the ballsy, baritonal contralto of Nathalie Stutzman? Individualized voices and techniques to be sure, but the three worked successfully in tandem to dominate their every scene. Even the smallest parts were cast from strength, witness the exceptionally voiced duet from the two priests, steely tenor Andreas Schager and robust baritone Jonathan Lemalu. Just as impressive were the important contributions from the Armored Men, Benjamin Hulett lending his stentorian tenor to the cause, abetted by David Jeruslaem’s impressive rolling bass.
In the ‘Best for Last’ Category: First Boy David Rother, Second Boy Cedric Schmitt and Third Boy Joshua Augustin were quite simply the best Flute boys’ trio I have ever encountered. Their acting and stage business were impeccably disciplined and their singing miraculously clear and accurate. And Dimitry Ivashchenko arguably turned in the performance of this or any other night as a magisterial, deeply compassionate Sarastro. When his well-placed, effortlessly produced bass carpeted the house with luxurious sound, you knew you were at a Festival address.
Based on the seriousness of purpose and quality of execution of this production, and having snagged the services of the Berlin Philharmonic and Maestro Rattle (not to mention rosters of the world’s top singers, instrumentalists and dancers), Baden-Baden seems poised to trump all other challengers as it further develops and promotes its prestigious Easter Festival.
Cast and production:
Tamino: Pavol Breslik; Pamina: Kate Royal; Sarastro: Dimitry Ivashchenko; Queen of the Night: Ana Durlovski; Papageno: Michael Nagy; Papagena: Regula M¸hlemann; First Lady: Annick Massis; Second Lady: Magdalena Kozena; Third Lady: Nathalie Stutzman; Speaker: Jose Van Dam; Monastatos: James Elliott; First Boy: David Rother; Second Boy: Cedric Schmitt; Third Boy: Joshua Augustin; First Priest: Andreas Schager; Second Priest: Jonathan Lemalu; First Armored Man: Benjamin Hulett; Second Armored Man: David Jerusalem; Conductor: Simon Rattle; Stage Director: Robert Carsen; Set Design: Michael Levine; Costume Design: Petra Reinhardt; Lighting Design: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet; Video Design: Martin Eidenberger
image_description=Kate Royal as Pamina and Michael Nagy as Papageno [Photo by Uli Deck/dpa]
product_title=Baden’s Flute Goes Barefoot in the Park
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Kate Royal as Pamina and Michael Nagy as Papageno [Photo by Uli Deck/dpa]