Vienna and Die Zauberflöte


Many decades ago I was in the Austrian capital Vienna with a group of friends, all fellow students from the Sorbonne. We did the usual tours like the Schönbrunn Palace with its Baroque splendor, reminding us a little of Versailles, admired the Donau, even went as far as Grinzing. At one point one of us began humming An der schönen blauen Donauone. We went to the ancient cathedral of St. Stefan,  admired the bell tower there, and heard the story that Beethoven once saw birds flying out of the hollow when the bells tolled, but could not hear them ring: which is how he discovered he had turned deaf. One Christmas eve, we listened to Sille Nacht Heilige Nacht sung in the Cathedral. We had an exotic dinner at the Rathhauskeller,  the spacious underground restaurant famous for its Austrian cuisine. The minstrels walked from table to table, playing on their instruments pieces of  schrammel: Viennese music. It was all very delightful.

But  the most memorable of all our experiences  was the visit on December 21 1955 to the Staatsoper which had opened barely two months earlier. There, standing with a crowd of a few hundred people who also opted for the cheap-ticlet-stand, I saw Mozart’s  Die Zauberflöte performed at a far away stage: That was  my first operatic delight. I was tickled by the Bird-catcher’s ditty of which I could barely make out the words Der Vogelfänger, and I was most impressed by the coloratura as she belted out the shrill of the Queen of the Night.

Over the years I have seen this fantastic (in more than one sense of the word) opera many times, mostly on TV, video-tape, and DVD. As coincidence would have it, I saw it again on December 21 this year, exactly 56 years to the date after my first seeing it in Vienna. This time it was at the huge Century Theater on Maple Avenue in Evanston, IL. [I thought of my friends who had been with me at the Staatsoper. Some of them have passed on.] I was not too enthusiastic about going to see it when I read that it was going to be a modern abridged version in English. I don’t usually care for such tampering with the original. I went this time only because it was a presentation by the Met.

But it turned out to be most enjoyable. Yes, the stage decors and props and serpent and giant creatures all seemed at times a bit much. At first the English sounded somewhat out of place. But as the show progressed and the singing was incredibly superb and the rhymed translations so correct, concise, and cute that I put my biases to the background and just enjoyed the opera as children (for whom it was intended) would. This could indeed be an excellent introduction to opera for youngsters.

Nathan Gunn stole the show as Papageno, whether he was struggling to sing when his mouth was locked or stuttered with Papagena about the chicks to be born.  Erika Miklosa was simply superb as the bellowing bad queen. Her features and mouth-distortions exuded the required  evil while the modulations of her voice epitomized what great arias are supposed to sound like. Tamino reminded me a little of Mikado of Gilbert and Sullivan in his costume, but he was very good also, as were  Sarastro  and Monostatos. Julie Taymor‘s stage  was grotesquely grand.

Dec 27, 2011

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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