Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Magic Flute by William Kentridge finally came to Paris

Die Zauberflöte/La Flûte enchantée, Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris, December 26 2011

Director ..... William Kentridge
Conductor ..... Jean-Christophe Spinosi

Tamino ..... Topi Lehtipuu
Pamina ..... Sandrine Piau
Papageno ..... Markus Werba
Papagena ..... Emmanuelle De Negri
The Queen of the Night ..... Jeanette Vecchione
First Lady ..... Claire Debono
Second Lady ..... Juliette Mars
Third Lady ..... Elodie Méchain
Sarastro ..... Ain Anger
Monostatos ..... Steven Cole
Priests and Armored Men ..... Renaud Delaigue, Alexandre Swan
Speaker of the Temple ..... Robert Gleadow

Ensemble Matheus
Chorus of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

It was too bad that Laurent Pelly had to cancel his new production of Die Zauberflöte, initially announced in the program for 2011-2012 at Théâtre des Champs Élysées (TCE). I always feel like I pump the energy out of the creative sparkle that the new production of any given opera brings up, especially when it's non-trivially and intelligently made. Why Pelly decided to cancel it is not clear? Fatigue, or the TCE realized the money was tight and they preferred to purchase a good production that was not shown in Paris yet... remains unclear.

If there was a production of The Magic Flute that I really wanted to see live, in a theater, then this was the one that I thought would be the most fascinating. William Kentridge staged this opera for the first time 6 years ago at La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels [with the most brilliant Sophie Karthäuser and Topi Lehtipuu as Pamina and Tamino (was it the first big role for Sophie?).] Since then his show travelled to many places, with invariable fascination and success, before landing to La Scala in Milan last year, where it was hugely acclaimed and filmed.  Before its DVD release the production came to Paris, and was greatly embraced by the Parisian crowd hungry for a decent 'new' production that the Opéra National de Paris is failing to offer for several years already.

It is clear that Kentridge is not a theater director and guiding the actors is not his main worry. He nevertheless does even that better than many "opera directors" who decorate the stages at the Met, in Covent Garden, at the Viennese Staatsoper, the Paris Opera and many more. So, this production is not primarily built one the interaction among characters of this story. Kentridge has a ground idea that brings the story a philosophical character, requires an intellectual engagement from spectators (if they want to), without ever hindering the basic plot.

Mozart wrote this opera at the time when the Age of Enlightenment was at its zenith, when the ideas were clearly formulated, the whole humanistic philosophy constructed, and the works by Christian Wolff already embraced by intellectuals and artists in Germany. It was an inspiration and new vision of life. Humanism, science and progress, became a viable alternative to the obscurity, superstition and dogma of the Middle Age. As a South African, Kentridge astutely saw that the off-spin --if not the culmination-- of the Age of Enlightenment was colonialism and its initial mission to spread progress, science, technology, culture... to the people who live in obscurity, ignorance and superstition. And indeed it was! It's just that no one saw the glitch, i.e. the negative side of colonialism -- occupation and atrocities that it regularly entails (especially when the idea of assimilation is in the game), as well as the dictators that are always born out out of any larger colonial endeavor [OK, Kant probably saw the glitch immediately but his Critiques became en vogue much-much later.]

So, what Kentridge does in this production, he uses his drawings that are very dynamically organized and projected on the stage throughout the show, to elaborate on that idea: colonialism as a practical realization the Age of Reason. The references are numerous: black chamber, birth of the moving image, expansion of architecture, scientific discoveries, scientific ways to see the world around -- that lead to numerous benefits for humans, collecting the animals for research and study... Three boys come on the blackboard and they find "magic" solutions to the problems of Tamino and/or Papageno -- carrying the message that education is a path to 'better life'...

Tamino will learn the lessons of life, embrace science and philosophy... and after all the exams/trials he and Pamina will be 'illuminated'/educated and enter the class of brave new men.

The imagery is so greatly used: to introduce the character, to put the background, to draw the towers, or to depict the images that run through the heads of protagonists.

Once this idea is placed intelligently, everything in the show starts working brilliantly. The psychology of Monostatos is exactly of a local high ranked servant who feels very important and uses his power to harass Pamina. The fact that Sarastro comes to rescue her is very astute too... It is actually the way how Kentridge treats Sarastro that makes this production the best Zauberflöte in business. Mozart obviously could not suppose what would happen and that the strong men who were supposed to mark the history for spreading progress and humanism, would also be the ruthless dictators, commit numerous atrocities, butcher the ecosystem...  This is where Kentridge is slipping his idea. His Sarastro is a colonial overlord who brings progress, science, the justice system... but who at the same time is a monster (there is a 20 second movie filmed during the colonial era showing the killing of animals.) Importantly Sarastro remains ambiguous, and that's why I loved the show the most. Good and bad sides of colonialism --or any occupation for that matter-- are easy to differentiate, but the main point is that they are intimately intertwined and one is impossible to work without another. This is Sarastro indeed!

To make the things better the top musical quality of the show made the evening extra enjoyable (despite the overcrowded auditorium.) Jean-Christophe Spinosi came with his orchestra and they really respected everything: the score, the singers, and nicely self-tuned for the auditorium of the TCE. Topi Lehtipuu and Sandrine Piau sang the roles of Tamino and Pamina so many times and they both brought the warmth and depth to their respective characters. Sandrine was particularly ovationed in the end.
I particularly liked Markus Werba whose Papageno is not a dumb comic character, but a sincere simple man who sings beautifully.  Sarastro was particularly important a character in this production and Ain Anger was particularly good at it.
The soprano firework role of The Queen of the Night was sung by Jeanette Vecchione whose voice is not huge but very well fitting the TCE auditorium. O Zittre nicht contains several lower notes that she probably like less, but her interpretation of Der Hölle Rache was brilliant (she even added extra high notes at four places of that aria, especially the amazing final - see this) and she, of course, got the biggest ovation of the evening.

Very pleasant and inspiring operatic evening in Paris, and this is a BIG change for a new production since long time. The revivals in Paris are regularly fantastic but the new productions are often bad or plain awful. So even though this was not a new production, it was new in Paris, it was superbly organized, staged, and performed. Bravo to ALL the musicians and to Mr. Kentridge! [it is easy to extend his idea of two sides of colonialism, to the spread of democracy and discuss both sides of the coin in relation to the characters from Die Zauberflöte, which poor Stéphane and Nicole had to endure from me for like 2 hours after the show ;)]

Production Photos:

My pics:

Papagena (Emanuelle De Negri) and Three Boys

Markus Werba, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Sandrine Piau, and Topi Lehtipuu

Queen of the Night (Jeanette Vecchione) and two of the Three Ladies

This is the only pic where I managed to get Sarastro (Ain Anger)


 Trailer of the show at La Scala is interesting because Kentridge talks about his production:

This is how Papageno enters the story [also the trailer for  DVD  ]:


  1. Brilliant review! I think this production of The Magic Flute and Claus Guth's staging of The Marriage of Figaro should be shown to students studying The Age of Enlightenment.

  2. WOW Vecchione's QOTN is fabulous! Who else ornaments "Der Holle Rache" to make it higher??

  3. Thx! I agree and hope this production will give wings to The Magic Flute, not to be a silly Singenspiel with un-funny Papageno gags, but through its apparent lightness it will make the people think about life and the role of Enlightenment in our lives today -- today, when more and more often the metaphysical obscurantism takes over the humanistic concepts of society, of life... I loved Le Nozze by Guth too!

    Der Hölle Rache by Jeanette Vecchione was quite something, and that finale was really astonishing. I don't believe anyone else can do this kind of soprano "pyrotechnics" today.

  4. I am studying this production of the opera in university. Unfortunately I am a language student, and not a music student, so I can't fully comprehend Mozart's work, or this take on it. Are there any crucial scenes that I should be looking out for, that combines the libretto and the music, that would be pivotal to Die Zauberflote?