Last night saw the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra and its characterful conductor, Iván Fischer present The Magic Flute at the Royal Festival Hall. The evening was an enjoyable one, and the 'staged concert', the maestro had called it, brought to light what can – really - be recreated at the Royal Festival Hall. Most operas and concerts at the Royal Festival Hall involve soloists with scores read from a music stand and the orchestra behind them, yet this event was a special one - a proper stage for Mozart's action to take place, with the orchestra delightfully performing below in the pit.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, known as one of the top orchestras in the world and winner of various accolades (including New York Magazine's 2013 list of the city's top classical music events and numerous Gramophone Awards for their orchestral albums), is currently on an international tour amid funding cuts decided by its city's General Assembly - cuts from 260 million forints (US$938,000) to 60 million forints (US$217,000). That being said, the performance last night proved how solid and defiant the orchestra and its maestro were at such a crucial time; only last Saturday they protested in Vörösmarty Square, central Budapest.
Last night, Fischer displayed his inner child as both conductor and director of the production, with singspiel successfully presented by English actors, (though I must admit, I wasn’t privy to this and thought Mr. Fischer actually needed real audience members to play a role in the opera. Damn it!) Originally performed in German as Mozart’s librettist Emanuel Schikaneder wrote it in the 18th century, Fischer had adults, teenagers, and children enjoy an evening of German singing and English dialogue, with large visual projections of pages plucked out of a children’s storybook.
This crafty technique meant fewer issues with moving around props or set designs, which hardly happens at the Royal Festival Hall, and, therefore, more visual stimulation and absorbing imagery for the audience. Actors and singers worked in sync with one another – Scott Brooksbank would translate the words and feelings of Tamino just before Bernard Richter projected Tamino’s deeper emotions and love for Pamina with his beautiful voice. The same can be said for actor, Bart Van Der Schaaf who’d bring the English crowd back to London, out of the dream-like fantasy, as lonely bird-catcher, Papageno. He released some light humour here and there, which was tidied up by bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s impressive voice.
The conceptual and creative imagery deserve attention too. Much scholarship has been invested into the hidden meanings in Mozart’s ‘grand opera’, most of which has alluded to the overtly Masonic nature of the piece, coinciding with 18th century Enlightenment, and in this production images of the sun and moon were prominent throughout. Though the opera is perfectly accessible for children, there are elements of opera-seria cleverly implemented with the symbolism of the Queen of Night, which was performed by Mandy Fredrich last night. Her voice hit the royal high-Fs but, from my rear stalls, it would have been nice to hear her sing a little louder, otherwise she gave a good enough performance of ‘Der Hölle Rache’, which kept the younger audiences happy. Particularly memorable was Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as the captured princess, Pamina. She has a distinctive colouring and sung with particular control and composure, which made her voice shine in ‘Ach Ich fühl’s’.
Krisztián Cser, Norma Nahoun and Rodolphe Briand gave confident and reassuring performances as Sarastro, Papagena and Monostatos. The three ladies in purple and blue wigs, sung by Eleonore Marguerre, Olivia Vermeulen, Barbara Kozelj also gave brilliant performances. And not forgetting the three boys, also dressed up as little lions, from The Hungarian State Opera Children’s Choir. They were squeaky clean on stage, and a delight to see and hear.
There were some unique moments to remember including an English speaking, and older version of, Papagena attempting to communicate with a German speaking Papageno, desperately trying to wake up his English counterpart. And towards the very end, when Papagena and Papageno come together to sing their duet, ‘Pa Pa Pa Pa, their puppy love is expressed by mushy imagery of children sprouting in the background. Yet mushy pantomime aside, Fischer seemed excited and pleased to be performing this night. The Budapest Festival Orchestra performed with flair yet they weren’t on fire - they honed in their enthusiasm enough to perform the opera in a light-hearted and leisurely pace. That’s not to say the opera was slow, but indeed, a playful and fun production, safe enough for children. Yet, it would have been nice had Papageno been a little bit wittier with his jokes - nevertheless a fun night at the staged concert.