Die Zauberflöte, Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria – review

Dog-dragons the size of a multi-storey building roar and breathe smoke. Coloured flares explode as stuntmen tumble through the air. Die Zauberflöte, new on the Bregenz lake stage this summer, marks David Pountney’s swan song after a successful decade at the helm of the Bregenz Festival, as well as his 30th anniversary as a director on the lake stage. In honour of the occasion, he has stuffed this Mozart evening with every spectacular device imaginable.

Johan Engels’ sets resemble something assembled from the contents of Kinder Surprise Eggs. Pountney seeks to tell his Magic Flute as a tale of enlightenment in a world of intelligent entertainment. The results are colourful, loud, busy and surprisingly boring.

Die Zauberflöte is not the most coherent story at the best of times. In shortening and re-arranging the sprawling opera for this 135-minute Bregenz version, Pountney and his team have tried for clarity and simplicity, but missed on both counts. Any opera for an audience of 7,000 inevitably becomes a mixture of semaphore and spectacle – there is little room for nuance – and Bregenz must strike a balance between crowd-pleasing and substance.

Pountney and his design team set out with a comic-book aesthetic, which would work better were it maintained throughout. Blind Summit Theatre provide fanciful dragon-horse puppets for the Three Ladies and the Two Priests, Sarastro’s slaves are Spider-man-style acrobats, Tamino’s snake slips into the lake and inflates around his boat with a formidable hiss, performers negotiate high aerial walkways with nonchalance. The technical team is superb. But the many cuts result in more confusion, not less, and not even a forest of giant inflatable grass or a revolving stage or gouts of fire can save the evening from tedium.

Some of the blame must rest firmly with Patrick Summers, whose leaden tempi and cavalier disregard of everything Mozart scholarship has revealed over the past half-century render even the most exquisite moments of the opera bland at best. State-of-the-art video monitors are evidently not enough to enable him to keep his on-stage singers together with each other or with the indoor Wiener Symphoniker.

The singers do their courageous best. Norman Reinhardt and Gisela Stille, both last-minute ring-ins as Tamino and Pamina, take Summers’ sluggish timings in their stride, Ana Durlovski hits all her high notes as Queen of the Night, and Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno is robust and assured.

Just before the end of Wednesday’s opening night, it began to rain. That might have explained the haste with which part of the audience left, and a lack of enthusiasm in the applause. But it is hard not to suppose that for a more compelling performance the audience would have managed to ignore a little water. David Pountney has done many truly wonderful things in Bregenz. This was not one of them.


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