A truly magical ‘Flute’

Nights at the Opera: Mar. 2010

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | March 2010

Feb. 22, 4:45 a.m. and the queueing at the great portico of the Burgtheater had already begun. Across the Ring, at the Rathaus, large banners proclaimed "Eistraum", almost mocking the opera fans waiting in subzero temperatures, watching the agonisingly slow hands of the great Rathaus clock creep second by second towards 8am and the beginning of ticket sales for the performance of L’Elisir d’Amore on Mar. 22. The going home traffic gave way to the more urgent coming out traffic. The night buses were replaced by trams, late night revellers by already weary workers and all the while the queue/line grew longer. Rolando Villazon was billed to sing Nemorino.  A viewing of the DVD of  a live performance of L’Elisir recorded at the Staatsoper in April 2005 with Villazon and Anna Netrebko would have been enough to explain this pre-dawn madness.  Hopefully he would be able to sing on the night.

There were some very special operatic occasions in February. These included two world premieres and a unique staging in the Staatsoper of  The Magic Flute by Mozart. Both Die Besessenen (The Possessed) at Theater an der Wien and Medea at the Staatsoper can be seen in March.

There were two performances of "The Magic Flute," both on the same day, each attended by some 3,500 children, on the largest indoor stage in the world (over 50 metres wide) and with music provided by musicians of what has been described recently by the BBC (and therefore indisputably) as the best orchestra in the world, The Vienna Philharmonic. Many aspects of this production are unique and exclusive to these two performances.

For example, the great stage, which some few hours earlier had been the dance floor of the Opera Ball was shared by the cast, the orchestra and members of the audience alike. For all other opera performances the musicians file discreetly into the pit and await the conductor. On this occasion the conductor, Bertrand de Billy, armed with a big bass drum led his musicians to their places on the stage. Shades of I Pagliacci!  The elements of musical theatre, including scenery and ballet were introduced. Then the backroom boys,(the lighting engineers and crew) demonstrated their skills in a show more exciting than a Sylvester fireworks display. Usually their great talents are employed almost imperceptibly. The select audience showed their appreciation. The musical arts too were on display - loud, soft, fast and slow.

By coincidence, my first premiere at the Staatsoper – on Jun. 1, 2000 – was this same production, and for many surely their first acquaintance with Papageno.  In the recent performance all of the audience were very well acquainted with the bird catcher and knew what to expect of him.   Hans Peter Kammerer was the hero of the piece, both as Papageno and the narrator who moved the action along at an agreeable pace, skipping over the more boring bits.

The magic flute and the glockenspiel descended magically from the heavens, beautifully wrapped with a big golden bow.  The music produced a zoo of animals, which were petted and stroked by an affectionate audience.  One was innocently stroking a crocodile.

Whenever Tamino (Gergely Nemeti) appeared to be threatened by a huge brown bear he was loudly warned of the danger by the audience. Tamino eventually meets Pamina (Ildiko Raimondi) and they fall in love to audible audience approval.

On at least two occasions in the past month I felt that particular operas would have been enhanced by an introduction to the rarer instruments in use. Here they got that right as each instrument type was introduced and demonstrated starting with the cello and ending with the timpani. The violin was presented by the principal leader of the Philharmonic, Rainer Kuechl, with a quick virtuoso display.

The discerning audience responded most warmly to the double bass, for an exciting presentation of pop rhythms, and to the trombone for its Pink Panther music.

Back on stage, The Queen of the Night (Anna Siminska) thrilled the house with the fury of  her wonderful coloratura in  "Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen." Several of the audience were inspired to try their own top Fs for comparison.  Sarastro’s (Dan Paul Dumitrescu) spirited response "In diesen heiligen Hallen…" fired up much enthusiasm.

Despairing Papageno’s attempts to hang himself are only made possible by the appearance of a magic tree (retiring director Ioan Holender) dangling a hangman’s noose.  The tree wickedly offers poor Papageno every assistance as it attempts determinedly to lasso him with the noose. Papageno is saved by the three boys (all Wiener Sangerknaben) who unceremoniously shove the tree off the stage.  A great story to tell their kids…

The happy ending is assured by the arrival of Papagena (Anita Hartig).  P and P rush off the stage to return seconds later with four children, thus confirming that the Staatsoper is a truly magical place. Further magic was added by the distribution of Opera Ball cake to the young audience.

The Magic Flute for Children is a joy to behold. Attendance is confined to school children and their accompanying teachers. It is only possible in its present form as an aftermath to the Opera Ball.  Perhaps it should be filmed and be made available for educational purposes as a perfect introduction to the world of opera.

It is early for tributes, but Ioan Holender’s devotion to the development of opera for children is not just a wise investment but an enormous contribution to the retention of high cultural values in the young people of this great city and beyond. Therefore it must rank highly among his achievements.

I also suspect that he has enjoyed it.

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