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2005-02, London ROH, Zauberflöte, review Janet

A Tale of Two Papagenos

A personal review by Janet Woodall

In February 2005 I had the good fortune to see the Covent Garden revival of Die Zauberflöte. Being familiar with the DVD recording of the original, 2003 CG production, and having recently acquired a recording of the La Scala production of 1995, I thought I would compare the two, with special reference to Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno.

The two productions are styled very differently: The La Scala sets and costumes concentrate on the magical, fairyland PapagenoLaScala1aspects of the opera: The CG styling is dark and gothic.  Midsummer Night’s Dream versus Ghormenghast. The La Scala staging is slow and ponderous, suffering from the full weight of the recitative. But this hardly matters as the cast is so good. In the CG version the recitative is reduced to more manageable chunks, and in the 2005 revival the music was taken at a fairly lively pace by MacKerras. The performance that I saw however, felt lacklustre. The cast, with one or two exceptions, was second rate compared to the original production and to the La Scala one.

2003ZauberfloteCG6Paul Groves in La Scala is a Tamino of the first order; lyrical and expressive. In stark contrast to Will Hartmann in the original CG cast whose voice is forceful but harsh and unlovely. I can’t imagine why they brought him back for the 2005 revival. Andrea Rost in La Scala makes an appealing Pamina, but nowhere near as compelling as Dorothea Röschmann who wrings every last drop of emotion from her G minor aria in the original CG production. Rebecca Evans (CG2005) has a similar, attractively rich sound to Röschmann, but lacking the charisma. Matthias Hölle (La Scala) made a slightly doddery Sarastro, with an air of being past his prime – perhaps an intentional nod to Sarastro being out-dated. The Sarastro of Franz-Josef Selig in the original CG production was much firmer than Hölle and far outstripped Jan-Hendrik Rootering in the CG 2005 production.

The one truly disappointing performance in the La Scala recording is Victoria Loukianetz, whom I found to be uncomfortable as Queen of the Night, and therefore distracting; best watched with your eyes shut! Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Q of the N in the CG revival, hit the notes but was strangely unmemorable, totally unlike Diana Damrau in the original CG production. Damrau makes a fine Q of the N: A mother’s heartbreak quickly making way to angry, scary, vindictive, self-interest.

All other performers acquit themselves well in both versions. I especially enjoyed John Graham-Hall (Monostatos) and Kyle Ketelson whom I thought sang wonderfully as the Speaker in the CG 2005 revival.

Now to Simon Keenlyside as Papageno.

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In the La Scala production he is very fetching in Schikanederian feathers. Throughout the performance he makes bird-like preenings and scratchings, peppered with other ornithological idiosyncrasies. He is Puckish: magical in appearance and movement. He spends much of the performance balancing on one leg, or slowly, smoothly moving up and down giving the illusion that he is floating. Some of his neat, balletic jumps onto the scenery leave you wondering quite how he does it.

By contrast, the CG Papageno is dressed in baggy trousers, shabby jacket, badly buttoned waistcoat and woolly hat. Apart Papageno_priestfrom a mallard stuck to his hat he wouldn’t look too out of place emerging from the opera house and walking down Floral Street. It feels entirely right for a modern audience to be able to relate to Papageno in this way. The CG production allows Simon full license to do what he does so well; make the audience feel connected to his performance. He includes the audience in several of the opera’s jokes. The prime example of this is when the First Priest tells him that he will never taste the joys of the initiates to which he replies “well, there are plenty more people like me”, he says this while looking around the auditorium and making a sweeping gesture with his arm. Simple, but it never fails to please.

In the La Scala production, Simon sings with lyrical beauty, but without many of the deeply human qualities found in the later production. This gives the performance a suitably elven feel. This Papageno has an other-worldly vulnerability, but not the earthy innocence of the CG Papageno. The best scene in the entire production is the “magic bells” aria (Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen). Charmingly staged, Papageno becomes quite exquisitely tipsy as his tankard is filled again and again by a character hidden in a barrel (who remains unseen except for one expressive hand). The best staging I’ve seen, and obviously enjoyed by the audience as it received the only mid-scene applause.

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The Bei Männern duet is also sweetly staged in La Scala, with much blowing of loose feathers and plucking of flower petals between Papageno and Pamina. But this looks contrived when compared to the simpler version in the CG production, in which the pair sit companionably next to each other and sing with earnest heart. It just works so well.

One piece of staging that really doesn’t work for me in the CG production is Papagena’s costume. In the La Scala version the first incarnation of Papagena is as the traditional old crone, thereby keeping the sense of her final transformation into Papageno’s ideal mate. In CG production she just takes off her coat, leaving one with the puzzle of what Papageno sees differently in her.

It is worth the hefty price of a CG ticket just to witness Simon performing Papageno’s mock suicide bid and his finding ZauberfloteCG2005Papageno5ultimate happiness with Papagena. The wealth of his vocal and stage acting is apparent as he tugs at our heart-strings whilst trying not to hang himself, then, having been prompted as to how to conjure Papagena up, delights us as he vaults into the nuptual bed.

Both Papagenos are beautifully conceived and realised, but for me the CG Papageno cannot be beaten. In the revival it was plainly Simon’s show, with the other performers filling in the gaps between his appearances.  It is a clever, meaningful interpretation that cheers the heart and moves the soul.

JW, June 2005

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