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The Reconciliation of Passion and Reason

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
11/14/2023 -  & November 16, 18, 20*, 22, 24, 2023
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, K. 620
Cyrille Dubois (Tamino), Regula Mühlemann (Pamina), Aleksandra Olczyk/Anne‑Sophie Petit (Queen of the Night), Florent Karrer (Papageno), Catherine Trottmann (Papagena), Jean Teitgen (Sarastro), Marc Mauillon (Monostatos), Judith van Wanroij, Isabelle Druet, Marion Lebègue (Three Ladies), Ugo Rabec (First Priest, Second Knight), Blaise Rantoanina (Second Priest, First Knight), Josef Wagner (Speaker)
Chœur Unikanti & Maîtrise des Hauts‑de‑Seine choirs, Gaël Darchen (chorus director), Les Siècles, François‑Xavier Roth (conductor)
Cédric Klapisch (stage director), Clémence Bezat (sets), Stéphane Rolland & Pierre Martinez (costumes), Alexis Kavyrchine (lighting), Niccolo Casas (digital images), Stéphane Blanquet (animated illustration), Atelier de Sèvres (videography)

(© Vincent Pontet)

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart’s penultimate opera, is deservedly well‑loved thanks to its exceptional music. However, dramatically, it’s one of his weakest. Personally, I prefer his other operas, from Idomeneo (1781) right up to his last opera, La clemenza di Tito (1791), as their libretti make more sense, and the libretti of the Da Ponte trilogy (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni & Così fan tutte) are as great as anything in Mozart’s œuvre.

Ever since my first exposure to Die Zauberflöte, in my late teens, I found the argument nonsensical and the masonic rites puerile. I couldn’t understand how Sarastro, who abducts a girl from her mother, can be virtuous, and a Queen, trying to rescue her daughter, can be evil. Of course, much of the opera’s misogyny is an expression of the Freemasons’ aversion to Empress Maria Theresa, the sovereign of Austria.

The Théâtre des Champs‑Elysées, my favourite Parisian venue, with its understated Art déco elegance, is the ideal place for a Mozart opera, thanks to its intermediate size (a capacity of 1,905), contrasting with Opéra Bastille’s (2,745) and its excellent acoustics.

The casting of this production was indeed felicitous. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate Pamina than Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann. She managed to convincingly portray an ingénue, a princess who has yet to experience much beyond palace life. Her voice is both pure and warm, and her upper register secure. Her rendition of the Act II “Ach ich fühl’s” was touching and authentic.

Cyrille Dubois was a different kind of Tamino, not the usual eager and dashing prince. His deportment was that of a humble man. This was undoubtedly an attempt on the part of the stage director to make Tamino “an innocent.” He accepts to undergo the masonic trials, but only because of his attraction to Pamina and his desire to free her. In other words, he isn’t especially excited about being initiated, but merely wishes to accomplish a mission. Stylistically, Dubois is an accomplished Mozartian, with elegant phrasing and vocal agility. His Act I aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was polished and stylish, yet sincere and convincing. He was clad in red, possibly to express a youthful passion. However, his garb was so loose fitting that it made him look decidedly unregal.

Anne‑Sophie Petit was a last minute replacement for the ailing Aleksandra Olczyk, the Queen of the Night. She arrived in Paris barely an hour before the start of the performance. Though her first aria “O zittre nicht, mein Lieber Sohn” was understandably hesitant, the public was immensely grateful to her and boisterously demonstrated their appreciation for having saved the show. However, she was not of the same calibre as the rest of the cast. Even though she was able to easily reach the role’s murderous high notes, her voice is quite small and her timbre without shading or appeal. Her dress, however, was wildly imaginative, even dazzling. Her elaborate headgear made this Queen look heavenly. That’s the power of show business.

Florent Karrer was a brilliant Papageno, with a rich and beautiful baritone. His diction among the non‑native German speakers in the cast was the most idiomatic. His phrasing was superlative; one suspects a background in Lieder. Papageno is a much‑loved character and sometimes the performer overdoes the comedic side, creating a certain dramatic imbalance. Not so with Karrer, who never upstaged the princely protagonists. He employs a winning naturally comedic verve, never resorting to excess. His Papagena, mezzo Catherine Trottmann, was an equally brilliant actress, easily altering her voice in the spoken dialogue, from an old hag to a young woman. The costumes of both Papageno and Papagena were colourful and droll, but mercifully not extravagant, as is sometimes the case.

Jean Teitgen’s Sarastro was appropriately solemn. His warm bass was appealing and his diction exemplary. One could understand every single word. He managed to portray an avuncular rather than an austere Sarastro. Marc Mauillon, the Monostatos, was neither dressed up as nor made up into a Moor, as stated in the libretto. I guess there are some blessings in political correctness after all. This Monostatos was an avid sadist with a sense of humour, who thoroughly and amusingly enjoyed tormenting Pamina as well as his own slaves.

Conductor François-Xavier Roth led his first Die Zauberflöte with panache. The authentic instruments ensemble Les Siècles was a breath of fresh air in this music. Gone was the heavy hand one often hears in this opera’s famous arias. Roth adopted brisk tempi that rendered the music more brilliantly precise, and the character of the performance more jovial.

Clémence Bezat’s sets were delightful: a posh jungle reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s paintings–dark, naturist and mysterious. This is the baffling universe of the Queen of the Night. The beast that attacked Tamino at the opening of the opera was a stylized projection, which is a smarter endeavour than attempting to create a three-dimensional monster. Sarastro’s temple was a futuristic universe with geometric shapes. The final scene revealed a striking science fiction metropolis in the background.

At intermission, some complained that the dialogue was not in German but in French. Such purism is rather absurd: why should an audience listen to dialogue in a language they don’t understand, and attempt to follow subtitles? Moreover, singers–even those who don’t master a language–can simulate the sound of a given language to varying degrees of success. But speaking is a different matter. Thanks are in order to the director, who opted for French dialogue and even more thanks to whomever updated it. Without being shockingly modern, the dialogue was natural and, I would venture, funnier than the original German.

Cinema director Cédric Klapisch’s first venture into opera has been long‑awaited. An international audience is possibly familiar with his big hit, L’Auberge espagnole (2002). The highly critical Parisian public had knives drawn and some wrongly concluded that there was no iconoclastic take by Klapisch in what seemed to be a conventional “safe” production. Nothing could be further from the truth; this was an elegant and brilliant presentation of the work, attempting to subtly render the absurd libretto comprehensible. Klapisch refused to adopt the black and white masonic vision of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder or to espouse his misogyny. Certainly, Sarastro and his crew are sworn enemies of the Queen of the Night. In Klapisch’s vision, the Queen of the Night’s realm is that of nature, while Sarastro’s universe is that of science and rationalism. It is not evil versus good. At the end of the opera, all the characters, including Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are assembled together, as if in a reconciliation. A non‑rational world of superstition and instincts is a scary one, but so is a sterile world of science, devoid of emotion. It’s the eternal conflict, between passion and reason. This is a noble vision that reconciles one with this “masonic” opera.

Ossama el Naggar



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