Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is sometimes presented as the “Nutcracker” of his operas – a fairy story for children. Other productions play up all the Masonic stuff in it and make an effort to offer it as an opera about the quest for enlightenment. This version from the Zurich Opera just a few years ago does not fall into either of those categories. It is definitely not for children. If you show this video to small humans, they will either get bored and wander out of the room, or they will have nightmares. Unless you’re Martin Kusej. I imagine Kusej’s children, if he has any, all wear matching black turtlenecks and spend their after-school hours deconstructing “Dora the Explorer.”
It’s funny how so many of Mozart’s operas can work really well even when the qualities that audiences often associate with Mozart – cheerful, “life-affirming” and all that kind of thing – are sucked out and replaced with gray walls and dead birds. There is always more in these things than you think. And just to lay my cards on the table, I found that I did like this Kusej version of the Magic Flute. There is enough in the opera itself that is creepy and weird that a creepy and weird production of it is not out of place.
The big opening chords of the overture each cut off very cleanly, with plenty of space between them, and the entrance of the violins at the allegro is both crisp and delicate – the whole thing feels very clean and well-articulated. (Can I get a t-shirt that says, perhaps in German, “my considered opinion is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a really good conductor”?) The first thing you see is a couple in wedding clothes, Tamino (Christoph Strehl) and Pamina (Julia Kleiter) standing in front of a white screen. It occurs to me that this is the second time I have mentioned law-enforcement-related height charts in relationship to opera; projected on the screen behind the two are lines indicating height, like you have in the background of mug shots.
The two turn toward one another and are about to kiss, when they are grabbed and pulled back through the screen into the darkness behind – the speed with which this happens is impressive. Another screen fills in the hole their abduction has made. At the end of the opera SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE ENDS STOP READING they are reunited in front of a white screen with no lines, and can finally complete their kiss.
But what happens in between?