It’s certainly not your average Italian opera house which has the classic horseshoe shape for the auditorium and a majority of seating in boxes. Outside, this venue is elegantly minimalist and entering its foyer one isn’t sure whether it’s an opera house, a museum, a railway station or perhaps an airport foyer. This is ‘Opera Firenze’, Florence’s opera house which, since 2011, has been providing the city of the lily with a state-of-the-art building for opera and concerts as part of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival.
I’d been to Opera Firenze before, in 2015, to see a performance of Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/seductive-puritans-in-florence/) and was impressed by the three most important things an opera house should offer: excellent acoustics, good sight-lines and comfortable seats. When I tuned into a performance of Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte a couple of nights ago I knew I had to be in Florence to attend a performance of this immortal work, usually termed a Singspiel or German operetta with spoken dialogue.
This was the production and singing cast at the performance on 28th March (shown with the original German role names):
Conductor Roland Böer
Director Damiano Michieletto
Scenes Paolo Fantin
Costumes Carla Teti
Light design Alessandro Carletti
Video design Carmen Zimmermann/Roland Horvath
Choir director Lorenzo Fratini
Orchestra and Choir of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Sarastro Goran Jurić
Tamino Juan Francisco Gatell
Pamina Ekaterina Sadovnikova
Königin der Nacht Olga Pudova
Papageno Alessio Arduini
Der Sprecher Philip Smith
Monostatos Marcello Nardis
Papagena Giulia Bolcato
Erste Dame Heera Bae
Zweite Dame Cecilia Bernini
Dritte Dame Veta Pilipenko
Erster Geharnischte/Zweiter Priester Cristiano Olivieri
Zweiter Geharnischte/Erster Priester Oliver Puerckhauer
Alte Dame Daniela Foà
Alte Dame Daniela Foà
Die Drei Knaben Soloists del Muenchner Knabenchor
What is Die Zauberflote about? For me it’s principally about the most heavenly music Mozart ever wrote. In it he displayed every type of musical form he’d learnt in his all too short life: from the semi-fugal overture, to the lied, to the revenge aria, to the chorale prelude, to the solemn choir. It’s all there in an unparalleled quintessence of beauty. Indeed, I would regard Die Zauberflote as a way of distinguishing true friends from false. Together with the love of cats and the belief in a European community, appreciation of the opera is a prime way of helping one to choose genuine companions.
Plot-wise the Magic Flute can be taken on two levels. First, there’s the interaction of wildly differing characters, for example, the rebellion of a daughter against her mother, the comical naivety of some country folk and the trials of life itself without which there’s no gain without pain. On another level one enters the world of freemasonry and the new age of enlightenment which the opera underwrites. In this sense Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, represents decaying religious dogma and inflexible, intolerant rules while Sarastro displays the new world of ideas of brotherhood and the dignity of humankind. Indeed, for the high priest, man has the possibility to transform himself into a god and the earth can indeed become a paradise. How wonderful and, at the same time, how fatuously hopeful when viewed from the present times!
The production certainly made an effort to highlight these dichotomies. The scene was largely set in a 1950’s classroom with Tamino and Pamina as adolescent schoolchildren. The three ladies were dressed as nuns with severe rules to match. In the second act the schoolroom was ‘lifted’ to reveal a primeval forest where the trials Pamina and Tamino would have to go through to prove their love were played out.
Ok the idea is novel but it’s only half-effective: the libretto has so many references to doors opening and gates closing that did not find their actualization in the stage set. What did compensate to a certain extent was the intelligent class blackboard which ‘drew’ the snake that pursued Tamino at the opera’s opening and which was used to illustrate other aspects of the libretto throughout the evening.
What was lacking, however, was any convincing idea of pomp and mysticism which permeates the original conception of Die Zauberflöte. I remember many years ago seeing this twice-magical opera in the setting of London’s Freemason’s hall. There, under the vaulted stars and the symbols derived from ancient Egypt, the work really did come to life and enact its arcane metaphors.
I could not fault the singers in any way. Queen of Night Olga Pudova’s two virtuoso arias were passionately delivered and the duet between Papageno (Alessio Arduini) and Pamina (Ekaterina Sadovnikova) was near-sublime. Sarastro hit those deep notes confidently and the choir was very effective. It seems sad, however, that the ‘three boys’ had to be imported from Munich rather than have three boys trained up for the parts in Florence. If anything too, the orchestra could have chosen a slightly slower tempo for the overture which fizzed along almost out of breath
All in all I was glad to have made the journey to Florence to see Die Zauberflote (and visit other things as well!).
On my return I was startled to note that earlier in the year there had been another Magic Flute at Pisa with costumes and choreography by Lindsay Kemp. Although I understand the singing there didn’t match the Florence performance I felt I could have empathised more fully with the production, especially in its emphasis on the opera’s magic aspect.
The most tragic what-if in the history of western music is ‘what if Mozart had survived the rheumatic fever he caught in 1791?’ In my wildest dreams I hear the music that this gift from god might have composed. Perhaps we shall hear that music in heaven – if there is such a place, of course.
For information of further productions at Opera di Firenze see