Queen of the Night thrown to the lions in Rome

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte ***

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, 27th March 2012

© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

Here was Rome at its gladiatorial worst. In Britain – or should that be just London – the only booing you’re likely to hear will be aimed at a director taking his/ her first night curtain call; the most recent – and controversial – being voiced at the new (to the Royal Opera) Rusalka. Similarly, Christof Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde back in 2009 received vociferous boos even from the expensive seats. Never before had I encountered it hurled towards a singer, until last night when Hulkar Sabirova’s “Die Hölle Rache” was greeted with a barrage of booing, not from the ‘posh seats’ but from the Galleria and at decibels which made the recent Covent Garden dissenters appear tame by comparison. Sabirova’s first Queen of the Night aria, “O zittre nicht”, had passed by uneventfully, if with heavily Slavic accent, so it wasn’t as if she was being targeted. However, each attempt at the top Ds in the testing coloratura section of her Act II aria was short of clearing the hurdle, a couple of them by a considerable margin, accompanied by a wrenching heave of her shoulders, willing the notes to come. Even so, I hadn’t anticipated such a dismissive response, and one which clearly unsettled Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina who was left alone on stage to continue.

If anyone deserved to be thrown to the lions of the Galleria, it was Erik Nielsen, the conductor, whose plodding tempi failed to ignite Mozart’s score. The Overture was a sure indicator of things to come, with the steady wind chords emphasising the Masonic solemnity ahead at the expense of any sense of wit or sparkle in the busy by-play of strings and woodwinds later on. The single nod towards authenticity was the timpani, whose gunshot rallies were rattled off with explosive force. The performance was delayed by twenty minutes due to technical difficulties with the set, but with Nielsen’s leaden conducting taken into consideration, it was midnight before the curtain eventually fell.

© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

While few of the singers would be familiar to Covent Garden regulars, the production most certainly is, for David McVicar’s broadly traditional staging was shipped out to Rome for the week before it reappears in London with two attractive casts next season. It’s a broadly traditional production, here under the direction of Dan Dooner, with plenty of Enlightenment/ Masonic symbolism, including the suggestion that girls are to be excluded, if the passive, but inquisitive girl isn’t included on the boy’s lessons from the Speaker – an authoritative Detlef Roth. The giant moon and sun act as opposing forces to accompany the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. John Macfarlane’s sets and costumes are a delight, the swirling mists and blazing sunlight well caught by Paule Constable’s lighting. The choreography of the black-clad dancers by Leah Housman threatens to turn into parody, especially in response to the ‘trials’ faced by Tamino and Pamina, but choral movement was effective.

Markus Werba (Papageno) and Sibylla Duffe (Papagena)  © Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

Markus Werba (Papageno) and Sibylla Duffe (Papagena)
© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

It took a while for the audience to settle into the low comedic aspect of the opera, which was strange given Markus Werba’s strongly characterized Papageno and Kurt Azesberger’s wittily performed Monostatos. When it did, there came the usual laughter at the sovratitoli before the actual lines had been delivered; it was slightly gratifying that it’s not just endemic in Britain. I’m not sure the Italian audience quite ‘got’ Sibylla Duffe’s ‘Ab Fab’ Patsy Stone impersonation as Papagena and I’m not sure I did either. She doesn’t seem especially old, leaving Papageno’s main objection appearing to be one of class. The final scenes disappointed. Papageno’s attempted suicide was pretty flat – just think of the audience interplay that Nicholas Hytner’s ENO production gets here – helped by being in the vernacular, no doubt; and the Papageno—Papagena duet went for little, with no great joy or involvement of the children until they clamber aboard the sleigh bed at the end. Strange then that it was greeted so tumultuously… The other misfire was Sabirova’s pair of entrances as the Queen of the Night, lacking any drama in this staging, with little sense of threat or menace.

Müller’s Pamina was as earnest and ravishingly sung as you’d wish to hear, her pure lyric soprano the evening’s main delight. She sensitively phrased “Ach, ich fuhls” with carefully shaded dynamics. She and Werba sang their Act I duet “Bei Männern” with simple charm and elegance, establishing instant rapport which she never quite had with her Tamino. I’m sure she’d win several hearts at Covent Garden if she’s ever invited to perform Pamina there.

Tamino was sung by Argentian tenor Juan Francisco Gatell, whose tenor is elegant without being particularly beautiful, although dramatically he was a bit anonymous. His attempts to avoid the monstrous serpent at curtain up weren’t entirely convincing, yet neither was his attraction to Pamina, which was inexplicable given Müller’s winning portrayal. “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubend schön” had Mozartean grace enough.

Juan Francisco Gatell © Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

Juan Francisco Gatell
© Silvia Lelli/ Opera di Roma

He was partnered by Werba’s excellent Papageno, very much the grumpy, reluctant participant, but eventually winning the audience over with his charm. He suffered the least in terms of dragging tempi; indeed, “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, where Nielsen played the celesta for the silver bells, was spritely in pacing.

Peter Lobert’s Sarastro had the necessary gravitas and a proper bass to boot, not a Sarastro-lite as we’re often presented with. He had real authority to his singing and his dignified presence as a father of the Enlightenment was impressive. He leaves the stage to the youngsters in the Act II finale, off to learn the flute to all intents and purposes. Azesberger’s gloriously camp Monostatos, with fey wig and glittery court coat, was vocally very agile at navigating “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” and led his posse of mini-Monostatos clones in a merry dance at Papageno’s silver bells.

There was a strong trio of Ladies (Sarah-Jane Brandon, Romina Tomasoni and Nadezda Karyazina) successfully playing up their competitive natures and a superb trio of scruffily school-uniformed ‘boys’ (Marta Pacifici, Benedetta Malvagna and Camilla Malpicci, all from the Coro di Voci Bianche). The Rome Opera Chorus provided firm, fervent singing to close each act.

All in all, despite the ponderous pacing, an enjoyable outing for the Covent Garden Flute and one hopes that Sabirova, who shares the rest of the run with Sirkka Lampimäki, may yet tame the Galleria lions.

This review first appeared at Opera Britannia. 

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