Opera Zuid’s Die Zauberflöte on tour

Opera is perhaps the most complete form of theatre, embracing as is does music, drama and often dance. For adventurous producers working with imaginative directors and designers it presents the opportunity to do something spectacular, something new and exciting with an art form that is often thought of as difficult and elitist. The problem with this is that it can sometimes go too far, become arbitrary, gimmicky and too clever for its own good. And, at worst the visuals and style can dominate the proceedings – the audience enters whistling the tunes and comes out whistling the decor.

Opera Zuid’s production of Die Zauberflöte is anything but conventional with some breath-takingly original ideas and interpretations complemented by exciting costumes, décor and lighting. And some fine, virtuoso singing too.

I must confess that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is not my favourite opera. Despite some great characters and some wonderful songs it does not flow. Lacking the conventional recitative it contains very 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 being not entirely successful in either. But maybe that’s just me.

And what‘s it about? Hmmm, that’s a bit complicated. There are prominent Masonic and religious themes but it is, as usual at the end of the day, about love. It is full of contradictions and conflicts between men and women, time and place, night and day. Basically, Prince Tamino finds himself in a strange land and after learning that the local princess, Pamina, has been kidnapped he sets off with his new best friend, Papageno, to rescue her. It then becomes even more convoluted . . .

But what of Opera Zuid’s production? It was all very visually stylized with, after the overlong, rather preachy spoken prologue, most of the main characters being wheeled on stage in what appeared to be glass telephone boxes – or maybe they were shower units – with their names on large labels rather like those car windscreen stickers you used to see in the seventies. They were novel and visually exciting and worked well, but they were on stage for the entire first half and the novelty wore off and they rather got in the way.

I really liked the costumes, they were quirky, original and funny. The women all had padding in odd places and the men had prominent codpieces. Tamino was dressed in a little boy suit with short trousers and grey socks and one wasn’t sure whether his was a codpiece or a bag where he kept his conkers. The all-male chorus was dressed similarly or with grey kilts being worn instead of shorts. I must confess to never having seen a codpiece on a kilt but I suppose it could replace the sporran in Glasgow on a Saturday night.

The most spectacular costume, and in fact the most charismatic character was that of Sarastro who looked like The Golem with elephantitis – and a codpiece. The three attendants to the Queen of the Night were rather like a demented sixties girl vocal trio with their bright, red hard shiny tops thrusting forward like the front of a 1950s Buick. Great fun.

All the characterisations worked well but Papageno was a bit odd with no reference to his occupation. Dressed for a beach-party disco the randy bird catcher had, instead of the usual pipes of pan, a mouth organ which he blew rather than played – however the title Der Zaubermundharmonika doesn’t quite have the same ring to it so was wisely left unchanged.

Both Papageno and Tamino had tiny alter-egos, little radio-controlled replicas of themselves on wheels which they manoevered around the stage with joy-stick controllers. These worked well as did most of the visual ideas and effects. I can’t mention everything all but I loved the three child spirits dressed in yellow and white school uniforms who glided around the stage on those trainers with built-in roller-skates in the heel. Brilliant.

I found the second half hung together much better visually than the first and the storm sequence towards the end was truly spectacular. The walk-down at the end was very odd with the principal characters in a line across the stage slowly undressing down to their underwear and removing their wigs and other accoutrements in a semi Oh, Calcutta moment. Very strange.

But there you are, you see, I have been writing about the visual aspects of the production more than the music and the singing. There were some very fine performances with an excellent Papageno and Tamino played by Michael Wilmering and Peter Gijsbertsen and Lilian Farahani was an engaging Pamina. But for me the star of the show was Bart Driessen who commanded the stage every time he entered – but with with trousers like that it would be hard not to.

A brave and original interpretation by director Jorinda Keesmaat aided by often magnificent decor  by Ascon de Nijs and wonderful costumes designed by Leo van den Boorn. Overall Opera Zuid’s  Die Zauberflöte is exciting and largely successful and certainly well worth seeing.    Michael Hasted in Rotterdam on 13th November 2019

The tour continues until 8th December.