It’s hard to find a version of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte
that’s as well sung as this 2003 Covent Garden production. Led by the eminent Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, orchestra and singers present a warm, often intense vision of the opera, not as the fairy tale it’s often taken for, but as a human drama of the passage from misguided beliefs to mature knowledge of self. Diana Damrau is the Queen of the Night for our time, with show-stopping bravura singing that tosses off the score’s terrifying high notes with almost casual abandon. Her acting and her fright outfit never leave you in doubt that she’s the evil presence here, even when she’s pretending to be a good mom concerned about her daughter, Pamina. Dorothea Röschmann is superb, floating pianissimo notes to die for and singing with a beautifully rounded soprano allied to a dramatic sense that make her Ach, ich fuhl's
so moving. Will Hartman is a virile Tamino, a bit heavier of voice than most of the lyric tenors who take the role, but singing well. Like most Tamino’s, he’s upstaged by Papageno, the bird-catcher who’s his sidekick. Baritone Simon Keenlyside offers the best-sung Papageno one could hope to hear, and while he’s funny in many of his more physical scenes, he replaces the usual clownish buffoon with an earth-bound Everyman. The noble Sarastro, the lovers’ guide to self-realization, is well sung by Franz-Josef Selig, whose ample bass easily encompasses the low Fs that make most basses sound strained.
The smaller roles are done well, too. Ailish Tynan has a romp as Papagena; the evil Monostatos is done to vocal and acting perfection by Adrian Thompson, the Queen’s Three Ladies are well-matched and appropriately edgy, and the Temple Priests are convincingly sung and acted. This production of Die Zauberflöte is a dark one. Producer David McVicar and conductor Davis reject the relatively recent transformation of the opera into a Disney-like romp for kids. The comic element in the opera is there, but its philosophical underpinnings--humanity’s fitful progress to a higher plane – are paramount. There are still plenty of laughs with the fake dragon that pursues Tamino at the opera’s opening and Papageno’s funny business with a bird, among other chuckle-inducing scenes. But the production’s Stygian backgrounds make for an oppressive setting. When light enters, as in the pomp of Sarastro’s entry or the blazing yellow disc of the sun that conquers darkness, the opera’s meanings are crystal-clear. Most of the characters wear 18th Century outfits, to comic effect as Monostatos’ heavy makeup, lipsticked mouth, and elaborate wig. But there are occasional incongruities: Tamino’s smock, the Three Boys’ knit sweaters and short pants, and Papagana’s mangy fur coat, among others. They’re well intregrated into the staging so they don’t jar. Nor, aside from the occasional too-tight closeups, does the video direction. In the special features, Davis speaks of the opera’s tension between "lighthearted music and the seriousness of the story," and all elements of this production fuse those key aspects in a way that makes this Blu-ray disc a joy to hear and watch. --Dan Davis
Simon Keenlyside, Dorothea Roeschmann, Will Hartmann, Diana Damrau, and Franz-Josef Selig star in this Royal Opera production of the Mozart opera conducted by Sir Colin Davis.