As I have said before on these pages, and will no doubt say again, opera is the most complete form of theatre. It encompasses everything you would ever want to see on a stage – music, drama and visual spectacle. Décor and costumes are two areas where opera has the opportunity to excel, whether the production is traditional or modern. For a creative director opera is a blank canvas onto which masterpieces can be painted.
This joint production by Nederlandse Reisopera and Volksoper Wien of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte remains very much at the blank canvas stage, being presented without décor, meaningful costumes or any of the other accoutrements one expects, and hopes to find when attending a night at the opera. It was essentially an animated, partially costumed concert performance. And, in fairness, this is not what the company had planned. This reduced production was very much a compromise forced on them by factors out of their control. It was thought better to present this than to cancel.
The action took place downstage, on a narrow strip in front of the orchestra with a few chairs and bits and pieces and minimal costumes which varied from formal black evening wear to jumper and tracksuit-bottoms street-wear. There was also a raised area behind the orchestra used for comings and goings and as a place for the chorus to stand. In theory, the advantage of this type of production is that it focuses on the music and singing without any distractions like overpowering sets, fancy costumes or intrusive lighting. However, one could argue that the orchestra going through its paces and the conductor waving his arms around could be fairly distracting too.
I must confess that Die Zauberflöte is not my favourite opera, despite some great characters and some wonderful songs. Lacking the conventional recitative it contains long passages of spoken text which demand a standard of acting which opera singers are often unable to provide. Written only two months before the composer’s untimely death, the form is known as Singspiel and, to me, falls uneasily between two stools. I felt the same about this production; it was neither one thing nor the other.
Nevertheless, for what it was, it was done well enough and very enjoyable. The singing was good both from the principals and the chorus and the orchestra played well.
However, and this is in no way the fault of the performers or the production, the evening (the final night of the tour) got off to a bad start. When the curtain rose, instead of the opera we were expecting, two men is suits marched on stage and proceeded to do some sort of sound check which took the best part of ten minutes. That is not the sort of thing you do in front of an audience who has paid good money to see a professional performance in, what we are led to believe is, a state of the art theatre. I found this really annoying and, for me and I’m sure other members of the audience, it put a damper on the evening. Unforgivable. Michael Hasted 24th February 2023