Friday, 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Die Zauberflöte, or, Played Incessantly (and Unsuccessfully) for Laughs

For the second fully staged opera of the 2015 Festival, Fergus Linehan turned to Mills era regular Barry Kosky. I did not rate the previous Kosky directed shows I saw highly but on paper this sounded a promising collaboration with 1927 Productions. The pity of this evening is that the central idea, of staging the work as a silent film, is an excellent way to deal with the dialogue. In themselves, those sections do work fairly well. Unfortunately much of the rest of the evening is problematic.

To understand why we do have to begin in this case with the production. This consists of constant film projections onto an enormous screen into which are fitted ledges so that cast members can appear both on the ground and in the air. Given the many environments the text calls for, this is not in itself a bad idea, the opening image of a madly running Tamino pursued by a dragon is quite fun, and the many entrances/exits of singers are adeptly handled. But two problems rapidly emerge: the animators are determined to play everything for laughs and they clearly believe that something visual must be going on virtually all the time. With regard to the first they have, I'm afraid, misunderstood the work. There are of course places which are meant to be funny, but there are equally places that are serious – when you have your audience laughing about suicide and rape – then things have gone badly wrong. Incessant busyness is an all too familiar vice of modern opera directors. Kosky claims in the programme note that “there are moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. Suddenly there is only the music, the text and the character.” I counted a grand total of two such moments in Act Two, and they were very fleeting. Too often, for me, this constant busyness was in conflict with the music. Equally frustratingly, although there are places where Mozart's music would in theory benefit from something else going on, animation tended to simply repeat a fairly basic point till it became tiresome (for example right at the outset the repeated hearts of the ladies fluttering down on Tamino). The bomb whose fuse burns down but which doesn't explode for what feels like an eternity is simply ludicrous (and not in a good way). Little feels at stake in the trials. Overall, I had the distinct feeling that the animators neither trusted the music, nor thought anybody should be paying much attention to it.

The projections have other regrettable knock on effects. They almost completely immobilise the singers by trapping them either on ledges in midair, or seemingly pinned to the screen at ground level. They also spend almost all the time looking straight out to the audience. Thus although they do a pretty good job of interacting with the projections, there is almost no interaction between the human performers, with the result that there is little chemistry to the various relationships. This is a sadly emotionally cold Flute. I also suspect the physical positions singers are required to adopt in this production of having a hampering effect on the quality of the singing, which brings us on to the musical performances.

It is unfortunate that this run of Flute follows on from the Budapest Figaro earlier in the Festival which was musically superb. This ensemble simply isn't in the same league. The production is not helpful, but only a few singers really managed to transcend it and stand out vocally – creditable efforts included Allan Clayton's Tamino and Olga Pudova's Queen of the Night. Dominik Koninger's Papageno on the other hand was disappointing (in the build up to his anticipated suicide he made nothing of the text) and the three Boys were weak. Possibly in consequence of being so closely tied to the film pace, Kristiina Poska's conducting lacked variety of tempi or sense of the score's differing moods, and pit and stage several times (particularly in the second half) got out of time with each other. The Chorus suffered from unfortunate (the side boxes) to bizarre (singing an entire verse staring off stage right) positioning, but rarely mustered the volume that might have been expected from their numbers. Finally, there was a series of mistaken decisions about piping musical segments in over loud speakers (the whole of the Speaker's part, and bits of Sarastro and the Chorus in Act Two). There was no clear reasoning behind these choices since at other times, with the exception of the Speaker, all these people appeared on stage and sang normally. The speaker system was not up to conveying this singing to an appropriate level of quality, and at one point in Act Two speaker system and pit got conspicuously out with each other.

Altogether this was a disappointing evening. While there was some laughter around me in the upper circle it was by no means unanimous. Dramatically and musically this was some way below the high standard set by the Budapest Figaro. In sum, nice theory problematically executed.

Housekeeping Note: Latecomers were being admitted in the Upper Circle steadily (and disruptively - banging of doors and seats) through the first 40 mins of Act One and often in the middle of arias. When I queried this at the interval I was informed by the Front of House staff member that a decision on this is made by the company. I have tweeted 1927 Productions for confirmation but have received as yet no reply. Such a lax practice is not normal, was noticeably disruptive, and should be revisited.

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