Some of the most challenging, witty and original productions one sees nowadays are given by the opera schools of music colleges. Gone are the days when students could only handle pantomimic romps and costume stand-ups. The Académie Européenne de Musique du Festival d'Aix-en-Provence is not exactly a music college; it's a kind of postgraduate forum for young artists, giving them a chance to sing at the Aix Festival and develop their careers.
With the co-operation of the festival itself and Lyon Opera, it ought to be really something. But no; the Zauberflöte that it brought to the Festival Theatre is a pantomimic romp of the old true-blue type. There are no really big voices; most of the principals have been supplied by the Académie, and they are disarmingly young. The director, Stéphane Braunschweig, contributes nothing in the way of interpretation, except to frame the opera as a dream that invades the sleep of Tamino (he tosses in bed while the monster appears to him in the first scene).
So it comes over as funny, pretty, clever, shallow, provincial. But at least,the enjoyment is updated. There is a wall of television screens at the back of the stage that can shine multiple images (the "wild animals", looking like toy poodles, which are charmed by the tones of the flute) and whole scenes: Papagena, escaping from Papageno as an old woman, appears on television as a young girl and is seen running away into a pastoral landscape. The ordeals are vividly shown, Pamina and Tamino burnt up in raging fire or drowned in swirling waters.
Otherwise, there was every sign of a rather limited student show. The conductor, David Stern, played safe, selecting stodgy, jog-trot tempos and cradling his singers when they couldn't keep up. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were, apparently, asleep.
It was not entirely a vocal desert. The Pamina, Hélène Le Corre, sang pleasantly, with a sweet lyric innocence, very poignant in "Ach, ich fühl's". Stéphane Degout, as Papageno, as well as being a gifted comic, showed the beginnings of an expressive baritone. The three boys, not named in the programme, had unusual warmth and assurance.
But it's distressing when the work's difficulties – Mozart put them there to show off magnificent singers, not to set examinations – are simply ignored. You need a special kind of singer for the Queen of Night, and Irina Ionesco could manage only a few squeaks. The two greatest bass arias in the whole repertoire call for a Sarastro who can remain velvety and rich into the lowest register; Denis Sedov, though an international singer and not a member of the Académie, just sounded gravelly.
Even the Tamino (Mark Adler), wearing his pyjamas throughout the performance, betrayed a feeling of strain and tension, his intonation drifting at times. He ended up in bed with Pamina, while the chorus sang the sublime conclusion. Good for him, you thought, but the Vienna Masonic lodges would have turned up their noses.
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