There were several things that delighted me in Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the New York Metropolitan Opera ( I saw the performance on Dec 24). First and foremost: the effervescent music of Mozart (especially the famous aria of the Queen of the Night); secondly the wondrous staging, costumes, sets and puppetry for which Ms. Taymor is rightly renowned (just look at “Lion King” or, according to reports, “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark”); thirdly, the impeccable singing by the cast; fourthly, that it was abbreviated to less than two hours in length (as opposed to the interminable three);and last, but not least, the fact that it was sung in clear, understandable English.
The last one is important because opera is usually sung in Italian, French, German and sometimes Russian, which can detract from your enjoyment of the action onstage if you don’t understand these languages. Even if you do understand a little bit of these operatic tongues, the stilted way that singers often sing their lines will insure that you will have no idea whatsoever what they’re singing about. Hence, the importance of the translations that you can follow in the imbedded LED screens on the headrest in front of you, which the Met has provided thoughtfully for its American audiences (you can even choose French, Italian or German translations). And, even better, actually hearing the lines in English. “The Magic Flute”(or Zauberflote) was originally written in German. A poet, J.D. McClatchy provided the very clear and funny English translation.
Having understood what’s going on onstage, you are now free to enjoy the delights of this very colorful production of “The Magic Flute”. This production dates back to 2004, about seven years after Julie Taymor achieved great acclaim and success with Disney’s “The Lion King”. It was originally in three acts, but for this holiday season, and for the sake of the kids, this was abbreviated to one intermissionless act. By doing this, the story gained a lot of clarity. It actually looked more like a Broadway show, except of course, the music was by Mozart.
Thoroughly enjoyable was the comic turn by Nathan Gunn, tenor, as the birdcatcher Papageno, who looked like a bird himself. Astounding for her coloratura pyrotechnics was soprano Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night. Her jaw-dropping costumes, operated by a retinue of black-clad assistants in the style of Bunraku, have to be seen to be believed. Susanna Phillips as Pamina, Russell Thomas as Tamino,Morris Robinson as Sarastro, Ashley Emerson as Papagena and Tom Fox as the Speaker, were also outstanding in their respective roles. Conducting with authority was Erik Nielsen.
This opera, to me, was the best I’ve seen, better even than Zefirelli’s “La Boheme” which I honestly found to be a downer, as well as the “Il Trovatore”, which was the same ( people die in the end). In the Magic Flute, nobody dies, dreams are fulfilled, love triumphs, and Mozart’s music and the story spun by his librettist Schikaneder found perfect and spectacular realization courtesy of Julie Taymor’s genius. Visually, Ms. Taymor borrowed a lot from Japanese imagery with Egyptian symbolism thrown in (perfect to portray the theme of the opera, which is the Masonic ideal of universal brotherhood). I noted the Kabuki-like robes, the vivid primary colors of black, red and white, the joyful arts of kite-flying, the onstage puppeteers rendered almost invisible in their ninja clothing, the all-purpose giant transparent cube that revolved to change the scenery … the list was endless. I should not forget to mention the three black-clad sopranos, minions of the Queen of the Night who matched her for vocal dexterity, and the three boy sopranos portraying guiding spirits who wore white beards and, at one point, had to ride harnesses close to the ceiling of the opera hall, a terrifyingly long drop to the floor! Ms. Taymor seems to get a kick out of getting her performers to emote at a height (again, refer to the accident-prone “Spiderman”musical currently playing on Broadway.
Still, I will say this: this was the most spectacular and enjoyably-staged opera I have ever seen this season, period. I would never have expected to say this of a Mozart opera, but there it is.
Below, a short video of the four dancing bears in the opera.
As viewed from the nosebleed section:
As viewed from the DVD video posted on YouTube