Bjorn Burger and Sofia Fomina. Photo by Bill Cooper © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd

Kitchen sunk drama

There might come a time when this new Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s Magic Flute by the Franco-Canadian team of stage director/choreographer Renaud Doucet, and costume/set designer André Barbe, trading as Barbe and Doucet, will find its feet and feel more confident about itself. But at the first night there were a lot of niggles and inconsistencies.

Among the singers there were many strong individual performances, and the cast and chorus were saluted warmly at the end, but reactions from the audience were muted; applause during the show was distinctly sheepish and uncertain – and with good reason.

Barbe and Doucet were apparently reluctant to take on Die Zauberflöte, having turned down no fewer than three previous invitations to stage it, not least because “we found the libretto deeply problematic – sexist and racist”. They are, they say, reluctant to portray the Queen of the Night as an out-and-out villain. In this production they have opted to “connect her story to the broader theme of women’s rights and the suffrage movement”. They have set what they call this “big Broadway musical” in a Viennese hotel around the second decade of the 20th century. The case for such decisions is not really made.

The hotel setting is a pretext for Sarastro’s brotherhood to be re-imagined as chefs, male, preening and ridiculous, while the point is made that it is the women who actually do the work. Beyond the point-making, the spectator is also presented with a host of extraneous visual effects which do little more than add to the spectacle – such as chefs’ hats with their own light source, which come into their own and glow when the stage lighting is turned down. Or indeed the cleverly marshalled puppets (by Patrick Martel), which looked fabulous.

With all this business going on, one sometimes felt for the singers. They had their work cut out to focus attention. Caroline Wettergreen as Queen of the Night had complicated manoeuvres down a staircase during her aria, and such distraction didn’t help her vocally. And one magical moment in the piece was subverted. After all Tamino’s trials in the masonic key of G minor there comes the point when the game has finally been changed. There is a radiant modulation into an F Major andante (‘Tamino mein…’). The couple can finally be a couple. And yet Barbe and Doucet cannot resist having a different silhouetted pair of figures up above them, drawing attention away from the singers.

Decisions that favour the visual can also detract from audibility. The trio of boys looked splendid backstage as part of the scene, but could only be heard properly from nearer the front.

The accretion of diversionary stage business works when it is used for purely comedic effect. A row of dancers camping it up in Act 1 brought sudden levity and big applause. And the way Barbe and Doucet have imagined Papageno and Papagena’s future children was hilarious if slightly puerile (spoiler avoided). The first remark I heard as I was leaving the auditorium at the end was “That was enormous fun!”.

Among the singers, Björn Bürger as Papageno showed the advantage of having a native German speaker in the role. From Hessen in Germany, and until recently an ensemble member at the Frankfurt Opera, he is a real creature of the stage. As Pamina the Russian soprano Sofia Fomina was superb musically, and is bound to develop dramatically. Brinley Sharratt anchored the part of Sarastro very well. As the Speaker Michael Kraus delivered a clear sense of the importance of the words he utters, but his buffo costume undermined the authority he needs in his all-important scene.

Musical standards, as ever for Glyndebourne and with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in particular, were high. The period clarinets in the final act added wonderful colour, and the playing of the lower strings was very assured.

Once it has settled down, the show will probably work a bit better. The best way to see it might well be in the semi-staged BBC Proms performance at the end of August.