Magic, and Muddle, in The Magic Flute

Opera Review: Julie Taymor’s “Die Zauberflöte” at The Met

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(Photos by Beatriz Schiller)

It is hard to tell that The Metropolitan Opera’s fantastical production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (originally created in 2004) is produced by the same person who directed 1999′s Titus, the wildly visionary and intelligently sleek cinematic adaptation of Shakespear’s earliest tragedy. This Magic Flute is more easily relatable to the director–this same director–that has most recently produced a horribly psychadellic film about absolutely nothing but that is based on a jukebox from The Beatles’ archives, also known as, Across The Universe. It seems that Julie Taymor–also known for Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway, a huge success, and from what I’ve heard, an experience to behold–seems to be hankering for an overdose of whimsy in lieu style and reserve, a predilection that often disserves this complex opera.

One of my main complaints about opera is when so much emphasis is placed on the concept of visual elements that they either become autonomous and dissociated from the work being performed, or they begin to intrude on the work in ways that hinder the musical and theatrical logic the opera already inhabits. Julie Taymor’s direction falls–on and off–into both categories. Although, within these drawbacks, there are moments of genuine achievement, both in the design, and in the performances.

The set, designed by George Tsypin, is basically a giant, crystalline cube that’s plopped down in the middle of the stage. It is constructed of four discontiguous walls that come apart, spin around, and rearrange themselves–all very noisily–to create the different shifts of scene, of which there are an unusually large amount, idiosyncratic to this opera, of course. The walls are translucent and are lit colorfully or sometimes light up themselves from a criss-crossing of florescent lights attached to it. Masonic imagery glows from inside each panel, and is echoed on a drop curtain that encloses the stage. The cube, combined with the curtain, work together to force most of the action to downstage, which I found to be generally claustrophobic and limiting.

Also limiting were some of the costume choices for the characters. Taymor is credited with those. The members of Sarastro’s order are all trapped in geometric robes and ceremonial outfits. Some look inspired by Klan outfits (pointy heads and all), while others looked like they had flown out of a tripped out episode of The Flying Nun–these also appeared to be constructed of two enormous slices of American cheese simply draped over the shoulders, with a smaller, white slice melted over the head. And when the whole chorus came out together, they took up so much stage space, the whole affair flattens into a muddled portrait.

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But the most egregious costume error had to be that which they gave to The Queen of the Night. This fire breather, in her first aria, was basically pinned to the set like a butterfly on a tag board. Two performers behind her operated four swaths of fabric that seemed to be intended to produce a kind of Shiva effect (The Queen operated two on her own). If memory serves, she’s usually in a tower in this first scene, so the isolation make sense, except for here, she’s not in a tower. She’s on the same stage level as everyone else, so you feel the need for her to move more.

Now, aside from all this complaining, there were some really smart and satisfying directorial choices. The three boys who play the spirits that are sent to direct Tamino and Papageno to Sarastro’s kingdom are painted in Butoh white, wear little white loin cloths, and have on wonderfully spiky white wigs attached to Kung-Fu sensei beards that drape down to their feet. This is a stroke of brilliance, since it betrays the naivety of the boys and instead dons them with a look of wisdom of the ages.

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The flamingo costumes given to the female ballet dancers one of Papageno’s numbers are pink and bright, and are appropriately elongated at the neck by headpieces. And a chorus of dancing bears, all made out of fabric and operated by performers in black enlivened one of Tamino’s arias.

But these kinds of theater magic did less to further the story of the opera than they did to satisfy some kind of expectation of fantasy that, no doubt, the producers hoped would bring in new audiences–particularly children. (I believe there is an abridged children’s version of this production.)

The cast was hit or miss:

Stephane Degout, as the mischievous Papageno, was entertaining and sang with a consistently musky voice.

Tamino, played by Eric Cutler, was a confident hero.

Diana Damrau, as Pamina, delivered the most vocally interesting show of the night. Her voice has a flexibility that is controlled and smooth over its transitions from loud to soft, high to low, belting and floating. It was definitely an accomplished, if sometimes too romantic, performance.

Dietmar Kerschbaum, in his Met debut, was a creepy, well sung Monostatos.

Reinhard was a reliable old Sarastro.

And Anna-Kristiina Kaappola had the money notes, at least, to play the Queen of the Night (I think there was only one note in the arpeggios of second aria that lost that electronic wildness), but her vowels during the rest of the singing were collapsed, and she had a voice that reminded me–for whatever reason–of the comic singing of Madaline Kahn.

All in all, if you’re hankering to hear some of the most beloved numbers of the operatic repertoire, you would do better to see this production than to not. The orchestra sounded great, although the conductor, Kirill Petrenko, gives the score a run for its money.

“The Magic Flute” runs tomorrow night and various nights through November at The Metropolitan Opera.

BONUS LINK: Read Allan Kozinn’s review in The New York Times. Ouch.

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