Met’s new “Zauberflöte” more muddled than magical

Sat May 20, 2023 at 1:47 pm
By Rick Perdian
Thomas Oliemans as Papageno and Lawrence Brownlee as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

For those who equate Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with color and fantasy, Simon McBurney’s concept, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening, is going to come as a shock. There’s plenty of laughter and wonderful singing, but the production is almost unremittingly dark, with a techie vibe. Director McBurney also packed it with stage business, at times to the point of overload.

McBurney updates the action of Die Zauberflöte to the present, but doesn’t appear to have a unified concept.  Sarastro is as much the leader of a mystical cult, as he is a CEO-like figure. The Queen of the Night is elegantly dressed in a star-studded dress as described in the libretto, but her lust for power has drained her vitality. The Three Ladies, Tamino and others who appear in battle fatigues are only pawns in their struggles. To his credit, McBurney adheres to the libretto, but overwhelms it with visuals that muddle more than clarify the scenario. Cohesion is not this production’s strong suit.

Stepping into the auditorium, you knew immediately that this Magic Flute was going to be something big as McBurney had commandeered the entire hall. The curtain was raised and the whole stage was on view. There were also two installations on either side of the proscenium: one a prop station with video equipment and the other a bar of sorts stacked with bottles and some vegetables lying about. 

Another twist was that the orchestra was raised to the same level as the audience, just as it would have been in Mozart’s time, but not a common sight at the Met. The first three chords of the overture came unexpectedly, as conductor Nathalie Stutzmann had slipped onto the podium unnoticed by almost everyone. People were still finding their seats and the houselights were up when they sounded. That wasn’t the only musical surprise of the evening.

 A large suspended platform at centerstage served as the arena for the battle between the forces of good and evil. Its precariousness underscored that the outcome was not a foregone conclusion. The platform also serves as the boardroom table where Sarastro and his men agree to permit Tamino to undergo the trials which will lead to his enlightenment. 

Video effects are an important component of McBurney’s concept, most created in real time by Blake Haberman sitting on one side of the stage. On a chalkboard, he provided details about the opera and the ordeals facing Tamino (all in German), as well as rough drawings of scenery, such as the mountains where Tamino encountered huge, realistic projections of a snake.

One of the most magical effects was also the simplest: sheets of paper carried by actors that flutter like birds, which were at times comforting and at others menacing. They also combined to create a photograph of Pamina which the Three Ladies show Tamino. Through movement alone the actors created emotion, especially laughter, as when Papageno crumbles up a single piece of paper and throws it on the floor in frustration. One of the actors retrieved and revived it. 

The forces that wage battle in the search for truth, reason, love, and enlightenment are attired in gray, black and white. Sarastro and his followers were portrayed as staid, sensible corporate types. Color is the preserve of Papageno, the bird catcher who has no desire to obtain anything but a wife. 

This Papageno is cut from less fanciful cloth than usual. Toting a step ladder, he is attired in grubby clothes and wears a battered blue and yellow vinyl jacket. This bird-catcher, Thomas Oliemans, who was making his Met debut, however, was the star of the show.

Oliemans’s Papageno was robust and coarse. In what may be a Met first, he urinated on stage, although with his back to the audience. McBurney, however, gave him a surfeit of stage business. He went into the audience in search of a mate and displaced an entire row, all of which was projected live via video stream on stage. He conducted the bells in “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” with a head of celery, to sounds produced by Foley artist Ruth Sullivan from the side of the stage.

When Bryan Wagrorn wasn’t at his place to play the glockenspiel, Oliemans did the honors to summon Papagena. Once Wagorn took his seat, he just sat back and sipped coffee from a classic NYC Greek to-go cup. Ashley Emerson, who first appeared as a tottering old hag, then entered as a burst of youth and beauty in hot pink.

As Tamino, Lawrence Brownlee was seen in everything from military fatigues to his underwear. His lyric tenor had a captivating coppery, burnished sound that filled out Mozart’s musical lines beautifully. Met principal flutist Seth Morrison followed Tamino about on stage playing his magic instrument.

Erin Morley as Pamina and Kathryn Lewek (background) as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Erin Morley was a clear audience favorite as Pamina. Her voice was rich and resonant and carried effortlessly into the hall

The stage was consumed with projections of flames and a deluge, as Tamino and Pamino underwent their trials by fire and water. When they emerge unscathed, Morley and Brownlee took flight in an aerial ballet. It was one of the more magical moments that McBurney pulled out of an imagination that runs on overdrive.

Katheryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night was an old woman in a wheelchair. She dispatched both of her treacherous arias with energy and flare, although her top F’s in “Der Hölle Rache” had to be taken as a matter of faith. Rather than being cast into darkness, Lewek’s Queen emerged youthful and glamorous at the end of the opera.

Stephen Millings’s Sarastro was properly sonorous and imposing. Brenton Ryan was a standout as Monostatos. First seen as a corporate lackey in a business suit, Ryan slithered his way through the opera. In his final appearance as one of the Queen of the Night’s beleaguered forces, Ryan looked as if he had been given a good going over by Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter books.

The Three Ladies—Alexandria Shiner, Olivia Vote, and Tamara Mumford—had a grand time lusting after Tamino. Their attire ran from camouflage to sheer, black robes that left nothing to the imagination. Rather than youthful sprites, the Three Boys—Deven Agge, Julian Knopf, and Luka Zyllik—were tottering old spirits supported by canes. It was amazing to see youth so effectively depict old age, the fragility of which they captured in their light, airy voices.

Stutzmann was game for anything that McBurney threw her way, but the score emerged in all of its beauty and brilliance. The spoken dialogue was amplified throughout the house, but the singing was not. Stutzmann got the balance just right, as she did between orchestra and singer. The latter was all the more impressive given the placement of the orchestra and the fact that Morley and Brownlee have relatively light voices. As in Don Giovanni, which Stutzmann is also conducting at the Met this month, she intuitively knows how to showcase a singer to their best advantage.

With this production of Die Zauberflöte, it seems like the Met wanted to erase the fantasy and color of past productions by Julie Taymor, Marc Chagall, and David Hockney, which still linger in the memory of many. (Taymor’s abridged, child-friendly version will still have a Christmas run in the 2023/24 season.) If that was the goal, the Met succeeded. One was braced for boos when McBurney and his team appeared on stage, but instead there were only cheers. 

Die Zauberflöte runs through June 10.

5 Responses to “Met’s new “Zauberflöte” more muddled than magical”

  1. Posted May 20, 2023 at 10:46 pm by Bob Mesaros

    If I were there, I would have booed the production team…and loudly too!

    I listened to the performance on SIRIUS XM with my orchestral score in hand. Some of the best singing of the evening came from the three boys. I remember hearing Flute at the Vienna Staatsoper and the parts were sung by members of the Wiener Sangerknaben. These fellows were equally good, especially in the notoriously difficult passage near the end of Act II.

  2. Posted May 21, 2023 at 9:59 am by Katerina

    Thank you for this review. This production is a disgrace.

  3. Posted May 21, 2023 at 3:43 pm by JR

    It wasn’t a first pee on the Met stage. I saw a Figaro (all I remember is that Marie McLaughlin was the Marcellina) when the Basilio and Bartolo strode to the back of the stage and pretend-peed on a wall.

  4. Posted May 21, 2023 at 11:02 pm by Paul

    Hardly a disgrace. A bit too much business, all the writing joking through/competing with the overture, for example. The Foley corner, from which some effects, e.g., flood, did not even seem to come. These were a Taymor-ish, Broadway-ish “look at me; I’m more interesting than the opera” distraction and excessive. I could not understand the extended applause for the queen not hitting her high notes repeatedly. Working that aria in a moving wheelchair might not have been the best idea.

    But, on balance, a laudable improvement over the last one and, let’s face, it a contemporary version of the singspiel.

  5. Posted May 22, 2023 at 11:56 pm by Russell Parkman

    I thought this production was terrific, funny, clever, moving and beautifully sung. The echos of the modern world brought the story to life and made many of the situations heartbreaking.

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