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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

DVD Review: Cuckoo Cocoon

The Zurich Zauberflöte
Birdman of Zurich: Ruben Drole as Papageno
Image © 2008 by Hans Jörg Michel/Opernhaus Zürich
From the Zürich Opernhaus and music director Nikolaus Harnoncourt comes this new DVD performance of Mozart's Zauberflöte. Harnoncourt is an acclaimed conductor who built his reputation on performances with period instruments, and unusual textual decisions. However, this performance is on modern instruments, crisply played and note-complete.

Filming the opera before a German-speaking audience means that most of the spoken dialogue is present and accounted for, giving a proper frame to the gorgeous music. In general, the cast is very solid, with an entertaining group of young singing actors anchored by the veteran Sarastro of the great Finnish bass Matti Salminen.

While the performance filmed here is fairly traditional, the production is decidedly not. The team of director Martin Kusej and set designer Rolf Glittenberg have moved the action from Mozart's mythical Egypt to a strange, labyrnthine setting that is either an abandoned office building or an insane asylum. Sarastro is the hippie health guru in charge of this cuckoo's nest, a series of rotating, similar rooms separated by identical fire doors.

The Masonic priests (orderlies?) appear as white-clad social gadabouts who occasionally engage in onstage air guitar. By way of contrast, the mysterious temple slaves are presented as shirtless, axe-wielding grease monkeys who chase our heroes through the labyrinth until totally disarmed by Papageno and his magic bells.

At the curtain's rise, Pamina (Julia Kleiter) and Tamino (Christoph Strehl) appear as a formal, married couple. They spend the rest of the opera in and out of their wedding clothes. Are they meeting for the first time, or merely suffering a bad case of amnesia? Papageno (Ruben Drole) first appears in a chicken-wire cage, his black evening jacket stained with bird droppings.

The Three Ladies (Sandra Trattnigg, Martina Welschenbach and Katharina Peetz) are elegant blind socialites in fancy sunglasses. They serve a Queen of the Night (Elena Mosuc) who appears to be locked up for nymphomania--she seduces Tamino in their Act I scene together. Finally, Monostatos (Rudolf Schasching) is a slimy psychopath who first appears out of a bathtub. But that's nothing--the Queen makes her Act II entrance from inside a refrigerator!

Sarastro (Matti Salminen) scolds Monostatos (Rudolf Schasching) in Die Zauberflöte
Image © 2008 by Hans Jörg Michel/Opernhaus Zürich
All this business is highly controversial and makes for good crush bar conversation, but does it work? The answer is: most of the time. By putting the characters in a difficult situation and stripping away the usual Masonic/Egyptian trappings, the true dramatic depth of this opera is revealed. Too many Flutes fel like children's pageants aor a bad school play. This production, (which is emphatically for an adult audience) reveals and revels in the glories of Mozart's final opera. The two-DVD set includes a 45-minute television documentary with backstage interviews and a revealing look at the labyrinth from above.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.