March 29, 2013 6:16 pm

Die Zauberflöte, Easter Festival, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

The Berliner Philharmoniker is no pit orchestra. It has muscle and clout, clarity and personality

Where do they all come from? The Berliner Philharmoniker has not brought its audience with it from Salzburg. The Austrian Easter Festival that the orchestra abandoned has kept its affluent, overdressed public, finding a new note of self-celebration with Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle. Baden-Baden, having lured the Berliners with the offer of more money and more artistic freedom, has had to invent an Easter Festival where there was none, and find a public for the 50-odd performances the orchestra decided to present.

Somehow, Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus has sold all 30,000 tickets for its new Easter Festival, and the event already feels paradoxically settled. The Baden-Baden public is vastly less ostentatious than its Salzburg counterpart. Less bejewelled and more attentive, the international crowd attracted to this comfortable spa town this Easter seems genuinely interested in the music on offer.

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Robert Carsen’s new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte echoes this sobriety. Just a few bars into the overture, the chorus, dressed in muted copies of the audience’s outfits, trips down the stairs of the auditorium and drapes itself around the orchestra pit, gazing in rapt fascination at Simon Rattle and his players.

It is, of course, the orchestra that sets this Zauberflöte apart from others. Bizarrely, it is the first time in the Berliner’s history that it has performed this piece. There are moments when this is utterly audible. The Berliner Philharmoniker is no pit orchestra. It has muscle and clout, clarity and personality, where opera ensembles have chameleon-like flexibility. Squashing this behemoth below a stage has its consequences; there are times when it feels like a weightlifter en pointe.

But that is half the fun. Rattle inherited an orchestra already whittled by his predecessor Claudio Abbado into a far lighter thing than Herbert von Karajan left behind, and his Mozart has a lift and spring all the more likeable for its unlikeliness. He is, as always, master of the small moment; his phrases have wit and humanity. Stage and pit are not always quite together, and there are tiny imperfections in the ensemble but there are compensations – the creamy beauty of the woodwinds, the robust solidity of the string sound, the clean assurance of the brass, the brawny assurance of the whole.

Add a top-drawer cast – Pavol Breslik is all you could wish for in a Tamino, Michael Nagy’s Papageno is charismatic and lithe, Kate Royal gives Pamina subtle complexity as well as grace – and you have the makings of a gratifying evening.

But Zauberflöte is a tricky piece to stage, disjunct and lumpy. Carsen reads the piece as a sombre reflection on death. Michael Levine’s set is a graveyard, backed by a video forest that shifts from summer to winter and back as the opera plays its course, and peopled by a sinister crew of gravediggers and shadows. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are co-conspirators; Pamina and Tamino are their playthings. But their love for one another is real. Carsen stops just short of cynicism, and ends up telling the story straight, warts and all.


The production goes on to the Paris Opera

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