Met’s family-friendly “Magic Flute” only gets better with age

Thu Dec 20, 2018 at 1:16 pm
Photo: Erin Morley, Ben Bliss, Nathan Gunn & Kathryn Lewek; Harry Bicket conducts.Julie Taymor's production of Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE; dress rehearsal photographed: Monday, December 17, 2018; 11:00 AM at The Metropolitan Opera; New York, NY. Photograph: © 2018 Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine

Nathan Gunn and Erin Morley in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine

Julie Taymor’s production of Die Zauberflöte only gets better with age and familiarity. For this holiday season, the Metropolitan Opera is putting on the abridged, English-language version (called The Magic Flute to differentiate). Wednesday night’s opening performance was a reminder of how fine this 90-minute version is–in some key ways even better than the full version–and just as true to the origin and spirit of Mozart’s opera.

Perhaps it is better to not call The Mage Flute an opera, because it’s not; technically, the spoken dialogue that moves the story along makes this a singspiel, which in the 18th century would be called a “song-play” and today is called a musical. It was also never an opera in the cultural and social sense, it was made specifically for the Freihaus-Theater auf der Weiden, outside the main part of Vienna, a place that presented musical (but non-operatic) work to a broad audience—aristocrats may have shown up, but they weren’t the intended audience.

The abridgement puts the theatrical emphasis on Papageno—baritone Nathan Gunn, who is so experienced in the role it seems an alter-ego—and the Queen of the Night (soprano Kathryn Lewek), and this adds a theatrical feeling that goes beyond the magical puppetry and beautiful, symbolic costumes.

Papageno was created for, and with, Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist and an actor, singer, and impresario. Schikaneder was a skilled comic performer but not an opera singer, and so Papageno’s music lies within a tight frame of range and phrasing, atypical of Mozart’s vocal writing. The same is true for Papageno’s comic mirror image, Monastatos (tenor Brenton Ryan, his light voice encased within the character’s exaggerated kabuki mask and body suit).

This was a true collaboration, Mozart working with the individual performers, who at the 1791 premiere included Josepha Hofer, his sister-in-law, as the Queen of the Night. She was evidently an absolute virtuoso, and this is one of the most specialized roles in the repertoire, demanding exceptional range, precision, and power.

Lewek has to be the finest contemporary Queen of the Night, bar none. Her two main appearances were spectacular—along with the chops, she brings a fierceness and vocal excitement to the role, a great balance of camp and seriousness. This shorter version means the Queen’s appearances have larger proportions, and with her giant, dazzling wings, Lewek counterbalanced the comedy with darkness.

The Magic Flute is a fairy tale about magic and reason, embodied in Papageno and the Queen. The abridgment makes the two ostensibly lead characters, Prince Tamino and his beloved Pamina, into supporting roles, which makes perfect sense—they are at the center of the story but not of the action. Ben Bliss, who is becoming a leading Mozart tenor, and soprano Erin Morley, sang the roles, and they were sweet, lovely, and graceful, making the most out of parts that are fundamentally one-dimensional.

Morris Robinson brought his enormous bass to Sarastro. Robinson made it all the way down to the role’s subterranean notes while still projecting, and sang with an elegant sense of pace and articulation.

Conductor Harry Bicket, best known for his leadership of the English Concert, was in the pit. With him the MET orchestra had a warm, grainy sound, especially in the woodwind choirs, that had some of the sepia patina of early music ensembles. The overall pace was fine, with some of the coordination between singers and orchestra going in and out. There were a couple moments when Bicket and a singer played chicken with the end of a phrase, but nothing that diminished the overall pleasure.

The abridged production is meant for families and, even without intermission, doesn’t tax a child’s endurance.  J.D. McClatchy’s translation is true to that spirit and puts the libretto into vernacular English—one doesn’t really need the subtitles.

This was, and is a vernacular piece, in linguistic and cultural terms, and it should be translated into the primary language where ever it’s performed, because it’s supposed to speak directly to the audience. Mozart could not possibly have conceived of a house that fit 4,000 people, like the Met. Non-musical notions of what opera is supposed to be too often obscure and obstruct what opera is and should be, which in the case of The Magic Flute, and this production, is nothing but fun.

The Magic Flute continues through January 5, 2019.; 212-362-2000.

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