Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) was more than the architect who shaped 19th-century Berlin. He was also a talented and indefatigable draftsman, as well a painter with a taste for Gothic fantasy and classical temples being assembled by naked youths pushing around huge blocks of marble.
Schinkel’s range as a designer and architect was immense, extending from the massive Ionian temple that is the Old Museum in the center of Berlin to the Iron Cross medal. Among his most grandiose architectural schemes were those for a palace on the Acropolis in Athens and for the completion of the Cologne Cathedral, which was in a pitiably state when he visited it in 1816. It would be an understatement to claim that the Ancient world held a fascination for the Schinkel. It was more like an obsession.
Among Schinkel’s finest and most accessible achievements are his designs, also from 1816, for a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. The sets display Schinkel’s unmatched command of architectural detail and his uncanny ability to create the illusion of vast and varied buildings and landscapes. There are dark caves and cliffs, as in the opening scene of the opera, which finds the hero Tamino pursued by dragons and then discovered by the birdcatcher and his subsequent sidekick Papageno.
But even more dazzling to the eye are the temples where Sarastro and his Priests conduct their sacred rites. Massive Egyptian columns with complex flutings and even more elaborate capitals dazzle the eye not only with their exactitude, but also in the way they almost magically expand theatrical space and draw the eye into an impossibly expansive world.
Dark grottoes and interiors alternate with palm-strewn gardens and open air temples below skies whose green-blue shadings evoke the Mediterranean light of late afternoon. Long views of a great river, presumably the Nile, are foregrounded by reeds, with the blue water sweeping broadly clockwise around an outcropping crowned by a temple complex, carefully imagined and executed, but also luminous, even whimsical, in its recreation of an ancient Egyptian without a single ruin in sight. The mastery of theatrical perspective and illusion is delightful not only for its detail and imagination, but also for its contrasts of tonality and dimension: the hues constantly change and as does the alternating sense of spaciousness and confinement.
If I had to choose between Schinkel’s masterpiece of opera design and his diverse monuments and museums, I’d go for the former. At the opera Schinkel could exercise all his talents—architect, big-picture thinker and painter, and fantasist unfettered by cost, topography, and weather.
The placement of this Magic Flute in an idyllic Egypt—with a few gothic German interiors thrown for mock terror— has to do not only with Schinkel’s aesthetic fascination with the Ancient world, but also with the likelihood that the he, like Mozart, was Mason. Schinkel’s Egyptianism is attuned to the Masonic themes presented in the opera, at times even too pitch-perfectly.
Since 1994 a production based directly on Schinkel’s design has been in the repertoire of the Staatsoper Berlin. The company that premiered this very production back in its famous opera house in 1816, has brought the Schinkel sets to the Schiller Theater, its provisional home while its permanent venue in the center of Berlin is being renovated. Last Sunday was the final day on which this Magic Flute could be seen this season. There was a matinee for families, at somewhat reduced prices, and then an evening performance by which time the kids would be in their beds rather than squirming in their seats during the nearly three hour event.
I dragged my own gang to the afternoon show and there in the plaza in front of the theater were mothers straightening the ties and hair bows of their little opera-goers. We were hoping that a couple of these diminutive connoisseurs would sit in front of us to allow for better views of the stage across in the hardly raked orchestra seats of the theater, built in the early 1950s after the original building was destroyed in World War II. Sadly, we had had a quartet of large German coiffures in front of us. Whenever I go to the opera, I think of Adorno’s incomparable “Natural History of the Theater,” but especially so last Sunday:
“Like an Odysseus sailing over a sea of human heads, and like him, anonymous, [the eye] can embark on the daring voyage to the stage. But first, it must escape from the prison of a Calypso in the shape of a fat woman whose hair-do blocks his escape from the cave. It twists and turns past Scylla and Charybdis, who lean towards each other and then spring apart, crushing everything between them. It skirts the Isle of Sirens in the shape of a girl’s soft neck at the noonday of her fair hair. The Phaeacian with the bald head in the front row is no longer a threat. Ecstatic with joy, Odysseus’ gaze lands on the knees of the coloratura soubrette, as if they were the shores of Ithaca.”
As for coloratura, in Schinkel’s Magic Flute the vessel for its delivery descends in the first act from above, unobstructed by even the most vertical of hairdos. The most famous image from the production is the Queen of the Night’s arrival from the rafters on a sliver of moon. She descends against the dome of night, veiled and fulminating behind a scrim pierced by the stars cascading geometrically above and behind her. The electric stars used nowadays are harsh and brittle, a look that serves a useful dramatic purpose. But they seem dissonant with the lighting design as whole, which achieves its effects with all due modernity, yet one cleverly cloaked so that the balance and inherent contrast of the images is not distorted. Refusing to be outshone, Iride Martinez sang the part with anger and accuracy, hovering with menace in front of her starry night.
The Queen’s two showpiece arias, divided between the two acts, are literal high points of the opera, not only because of her heavenly perch but for the stratospheric super-high Fs called for in both arias—just about the highest pitch in the operatic repertoire. These vocal pyrotechnics light up the night sky even more than the bright stars themselves.
In the Magic Flute the irrationality of women is cast as the enemy of reason, predictably embodied by men, with the exception of the Moorish slave Monostatos and the sensualist nature-boy Papageno, who wants nothing more than wine and woman, and has little time for the pomp and trials to which the high-minded prince Tamino soon becomes dedicated. Tamino’s beloved, Pamina—good daughter of the bad Queen and the all-too-benevolent ruler, Sarastro—is hardly less irrational than her mother, immediately contemplating suicide, for example, when Tamino, obeying his vow of silence, refuses to speak to her when in the midst of his trial to be admitted to the Brotherhood of enlightened priests.
The stiffly un-fun side of Enlightenment was represented most rigidly in this production by Tamino, played by Stephan Rügamer. He was dressed as an early 19th-century dandy, with the frock-coat and finely-wrought sideburns of Schinkel himself: it was as if the great architect was surveying his own work and singing its praises. Rügamer sang well, the purity of his tenor matching the apparent steadfastness of his on-stage moral character. He even had moments that approached amorous rapture in his love aria, “Dies Bildniss” serenading the portrait of his Pamina—this picture having caused him to fall in love with her. Never was the idea of woman more succinctly objectified. As an actor Rügamer was as unbending as Giza limestone, and was duly punished by kids and parents alike with a less than lukewarm reception at the curtain calls.
The priests with their headgear of waggling phallic fronds and their calls for truth and wisdom were equally as unconvincing; their beer-bellies screamed Oktoberfest rather than hymning Valley of Kings’ asceticism and devotion. Sarastro, sung powerfully by the Russian basso profundo Alexander Vinogradov, was pious and good, his but the message lacks the verve and vitality of his estranged wife with her threats and thunderbolts. The pair’s bogus burying of the hatchet for the union of Tamino and Pamino at the close of the opera is downright silly.
The Magic Opera, like so many other operas, is deeply misogynistic, and I could well imagine an antidote entitled The More Magical Flute in which Pamino actually does use the dagger given to her by the Queen of the Night to kill her father. If only Mozart could be called back from the dead.
The best male performance came first in the form of Gyula Orendt’s Papageno—lively of voice and action, and representing well my own impatience with the holy rites, except when when they are accompanied by that masterpiece of antique counterpoint presented in the orchestra beneath the Lutheran hymn sung in unison by the two-armored men. Bad guy, and whipping boy Monostatos sparkled sadistically in the trio of Act I, scene two (“Du feines Täubchen) dragging around the imprisoned Pamina. Monostatos was sung by the Moroccan, Abdellah Lasri, here done up in period-true, but politically incorrect blackface: a Moor playing a “Moor.” It made me imagine Michael Jackson dipping into the lampblack to take on the part.
What Schinkel’s production helps show us through its Gothic grottos and fabulous architectural ensembles, as intricate and buoyant as Mozart’s musical ones, is that on the path towards Enlightenment, the dark, wayward characters— cloaked by night or masked by blackface—are the always the most fun.