by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Dazzling 'Flute' in Ferrara

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 24 May 1995


The music of Mozart's 'Die Zauberflöte' is for the most part of unabashed simplicity -- the simplicity, however, of a consummate master.

The story, set in a hazily-outlined, imaginary Egypt, of the chivalrous mission of Prince Tamino, accompanied by the child of nature Papageno, to rescue Pamina at the behest of her mother, the Queen of the Night, from captivity in the hands of the High Priest Sarastro, is lacking in complexity even by the undemanding narrative standards of fairy tales (though there is a mild twist when we discover who the real baddies are).

Meanwhile, this hazardously insubstantial, delicately poised structure is expected to carry a serious message, deeply-imbued with Enlightenment thinking, about human responsibilities and the vicissitudes and rewards of the pursuit of the Good Life.

'The Magic Flute' was written a few months before Mozart's death, and John Eliot Gardiner has left it till last in his five-year-long project to stage and record all seven of the composer's mature operas. To realize a truly convincing staged version of this sublimely-scored philosophical pantomime is a challenge that has defeated many distinguished conductors in the past.But Gardiner, the director Stephen Medcalf, the English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir and the European dancers of the American Pilobolus Dance Theatre triumphantly showed that it could be done at the Teatro Comunale in FerraraFriday.The whole action takes place on a bare stage, the only props being the flute, the glockenspiel, a gilded picture frame, dagger, staff and apple.

But through the music, movement, costume and lighting the company conjures up an illusion of teeming,constantly shifting locales. The Pilobolus team offour male and two female dancers -- light-footed, fluid, lissome, and gracefully acrobatic -- transformed themselves seemingly effortlessly into rampant lions, chains, columns, arches, Papageno's birds in flight, the lofty, swaying tree from which Papageno threatens to hang himself, water, leaping flames and a bed of roses for Pamina to sleep upon. Thesevisual effects are artfully enhanced by Rick Fisher's excellent lighting effects.

Romeo Gigli's costumes were equally in harmony with thespirit of the production. His eye-catching woven, brocaded, striped and beadedcombinations -- from Sarastro's gold morning coat and Red Indian headband to the Queen of the Night's sparkling multitrained extravaganza-- provide pleasing splashes of color against the austere monochrome backdrop.

Gardiner is a tirelessseeker of exceptional new young voices, and his flair for spotting talent wasconfirmed by the cast -- all of whom performed with panache,putting energy into their acting as well as their singing -- expertly directed by Stephen Medcalf, and inspired additionally, no doubt, by the elegant example set by their Pilobolus colleagues.

Particularly remarkable was Gerald Finley's Papageno, in which the character's low-comic, impish, stubborn and unwordly elements were brilliantly blended; and Harry Peeters's dignified and powerful Sarastro, which lent credence to the didactic thread of the drama. Angela Kazimierczuk, Carola Guber and Maria Jonas were divertingly wicked, lasciviousand poutingly preposterous as the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies.

The breakneck Papageno-Papagena duet ofConstanze Backes, a rising star,and Finley during which the two start feverishly to rip off each other's clothes, unable to wait a moment longer before beginning production of the horde of tiny tots they intend to inflict upon an unsuspecting world, was engagingly sexy, funny and superlatively sung.

The English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir acquitted themselves with their usual faultless technique, mastery of the score and passionate commitment, producing a richness and subtlety of tone that one can only hope will encourage any of their Italian confreres listening to push ahead with the adoption of period instruments for the playing of Baroque music (a movement still in its infancy in Italy).

This 'Magic Flute' reveals the dazzling results that can be achieved by bringing together the very best of international music-making and theater.

Performances of 'Die Zauberflöte':Amsterdam (Concertgebow)June 19, 20, 22;Ludwigsburg (Forum am Schlosspark), July 2 and London (Queen Elizabeth Hall), July 12, 14.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024