Canadian tenor Michael Schade leads Salzburg's stunning, surreal Magic Flute
Mozart : Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)
Messezentrum, Salzburg, Austria
seen August 14, 1999
by Philip Anson
For nigh on 80 years the Salzburg Festival has been attracting the jet set for a month of the world's best classical music. Since 1992, the Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier has been struggling to breathe fresh air into an event which had become a monument to the ego of the late Herbert von Karajan, who ran the city like a private fief until his death in 1989. One of Mortier's key moves has been to decentralize, in effect suburbanize, festival events. A twenty minute walk along the jade-tinted Salzach River from the touristy historical heart of Salzburg will take you to the Messezentrum, a huge industrial space built for trade shows but this summer converted into the Magic Flute Hall for the reprise of German director Achum Freyer's deliriously fast-paced production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote. Freyer's production, which sets Mozart's opera in a Surrealist Ringling Brothers Meets Heironymus Bosch circus complete with tumbling clowns, fire-eaters, and bad-drug-trip monsters, was first mounted two years ago in the Festival's open-air 1549-seat Felsenreitshule (Summer Riding School), but as part of Mortier's commitment to increased accessibility, this summer it was moved to the 2222-seat Messezentrum. Since ticket agencies were still selling top seats for $700, it is doubtful whether many of the deserving poor managed to get in. While champagne-sipping multimillionaires outside the the Magic Flute Hall discussed the magic of money, inside the circus tent only the magic of art mattered. And very High Art it was. For a North American opera fan weaned on a diet of sit-com direction and dirt cheap stagings (unit sets, tawdry co-productions, and the inevitable costumes rented from Malibar), Freyer's sophisiticated show was a revelation.
It is hard to recall when one last saw an opera production as intellectually stimulating as Achim Freyer's Flute. The visuals are so referentially dense, you practically need a Ph.D. in comparative anthropology just to know what you are missing. Freyer's decision to set the opera in a circus, that quintessentially plebean entertainment, was the reddest conceivable herring, for this was no mere rib-tickling diversion, but rather a complex revision seamlessly integrating everything from Aztec iconography to early Christian symbolism, with a few allusions to seventies glam rock thrown in for good measure. Joseph Campbell would have approved.
Prince Tamino and his beloved Pamina were tragicomic white-clad pierrots from the commedia della arte tradition. Papageno, the bird man, wore the sidekick clown's baggy pants and drove a ten foot high tricycle. The Queen of the Night was a Ziggy Stardust clone in a sequined top hat. Sarastro as the circus ringmaster in a bright yellow plastic tuxedo, eventually morphed into a giant presence embracing Pamina with two huge arms reaching around the entire stage. Disturbing phallic symbolism also ran through the show, with burlesque displays of dildos (one protruding from Monostatos' forehead), pillars, batons, and a serpent swallowing its tail. The phalloi alluded to the satyrs of Greek drama and the randy origin of Pan, inspirer of panic - an emotion which many audience members presumably felt as this zany show unfolded.
The cast was uniformly excellent. Back from the original 1997 production, Canadian tenor Michael Schade delivered a winning performance as Prince Tamino, who undergoes trials by fire and water to win the lovely Pamina. Schade's light lyric tenor has a plangent timbre which suited Freyer's vision of the Prince as a besotted Pierrot. Keeping it all in the family, Schade's real-life wife Canadian mezzo Norine Burgess played the Second Lady. Other outstanding turns included German baritone Matthias Goerne's slapstick Papageno and German bass Franz-Joseph Selig's noble Sarastro. German soprano Dorothea Roschmann as Pamina was the discovery of the evening, deploying a deeply moving, mezzo-tinted instrument.
The Salzburg Festival continues through Aug. 29. Tcket Office: P.O. Box A5020, Salzburg, Austria. Tel. 011-43-662-80 45 579; fax: 011-43-662 80 45 760; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: http://www.salzburgfestival.at.