Villazón’s dazzling Papageno lights up the Met’s holiday “Magic Flute”

Sat Dec 09, 2023 at 12:38 pm
Rolando Villazón as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s brilliant new production of Die Zauberflöte that premiered last season retired the previous Julie Taymor staging. As enduring a success as that was, the Met wanted something new, and got something great. So there is some ambiguity to the reduced, English-language version of the Taymor staging that remains as the holiday season production of The Magic Flute. Will the new one ever replace it?

Whatever the answer, The Magic Flute opened again Friday night for an extensive December run. With the familiar puppets and costumes that run the range from animal to architectural representation, and even some familiar faces in the cast, it was as enjoyable as ever.

The Met’s Magic Flute compresses Die Zauberflöte down to under two hours, with a brief curtain drop between acts one and two but no intermission. It’s sung in poet J.D. McClatchy’s sweet and cheeky translation. The Queen of the Night’s part is essentially intact, and the reductions foreground Papageno. That’s ideal for its appeal to all the families and young people in attendance, from toddlers to teens. 

The familiar faces Friday were sopranos Kathryn Lewek and Janai Brugger aa the Queen of the Night and Pamina and conductor Patrick Furrer. Tenor Piotr Buszewski sang Tamino. Well known, but not in this role, and the great surprise and pleasure of the night, was tenor Rolando Villazón as Papageno.

Papageno is a baritone role, though that classification has more to do with weight and color than range—written by Mozart for actor and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, the part is not vocally operatic. The notes were no problem for Villazón, and via his quasi-parlando delivery, the timbre was just right. Even better, he had a brilliant comic touch in both his physical and verbal timing, and added all sorts of hilarious details in multiple languages to his dialogue. The effect was that he was ad-libbing his way through the performance, and it was dazzling, the kind of thing that makes this holiday version great all around.

Janai Brugger as Pamina and Piotr Buszewski as Tamino in the Met’s Magic Flute. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

Opposite him, Buszewski, was energetic as Tamino, bursting out in the opening scene. At times he was also a little out of control, pushing his Mozartian tenor out into the house, with intonation sometimes careening. Perhaps with some initial adrenaline burned off, he was steadier in the Act II section and had a lovely, mellow and sweet sound when paired with Brugger.

The soprano was excellent as Pamina, singing with ease and a smooth, relaxed resonance. Her second act aria—originally “Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden”—was gorgeous, and her serene pace was a perfect respite from the overall to-ings and fro-sings. Pamina has the simplest presentation in terms of costume and makeup, and just through her voice Brugger was the most magical presence on stage.

Her vocal rival, appropriately, was Lewek. She is the best Queen of the Night around. Even if it at times slightly constrained in the highest register, she does much more than sing the notes—and she does that with power and articulation. Her regal self-possession delivers the character herself, and with intensity and enormous presence, Lewek adds essential drama to the production.

As Sarastro, bass Brindley Sherratt had a beautiful, cavernous sound, almost impossibly deep, and great stateliness. Tenor Brenton Ryan sang Monastatos—like Lewek, he’s experienced with the character and performs it with as much naturalness as the incredible sumo-bat costume permits.

Furrer led a lively performance in the pit, and the orchestra sounded poised and alert. Though this is possibly a lesser commitment to the players, this was as fine, exact, detailed, and musical performance as they have given this year. It was an essential part of the refreshing feeling of the whole evening.

The Magic Flute continues through December 30. An alternate cast with Joshua Blue, Alexander Birch Elliott, Liv Redpath, and conductor Gareth Morrell performs December 15, 21, 27, 30. There are two performances December 30; Jeni Houser sings Queen of the Night for one.

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