The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.
In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.
The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.
La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini). The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti. Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees. The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore. Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero. The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper. The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore. Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement. Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate. The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante. Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well. Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante. Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms. Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot? As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music. In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era). Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production. Primary colors abound. Continue reading
If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.
Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.
Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.
For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.