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Happy Birthday to Me!

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
12/20/2016 -  & December 23*, 26, 29, 30, 2016, January 2, 5 2017
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute
Janai Brugger*/Caitlin Lynch (Pamina), Jessica Pratt*/Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), Ben Bliss/Russell Thomas* (Tamino), Christopher Maltman (Papageno), Shenyang (speaker), Morris Robinson (Sarastro)
Julie Taymor (Production & Costume Design), George Tsypin (Set Design), Donald Holder (Lighting Design), Julie Taymor & Michael Curry (Puppet Design), Mark Dendy (Choreographer), J. D. McClatchy (English Adaptation)
Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Antony Walker (conductor)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Mahler’s dying utterance

I am a Christmas Eve baby and this year the Metropolitan Opera has presented me with a delightful gift on the eve of my special day, two seats at the opera house for an adaptation of The Magic Flute with children as the targeted audience. Although I have attended many mountings of this sublime piece over the decades, including the current Julie Taymor staging in its German version, I was enchanted by this undertaking, abbreviated and Anglicized to facilitate the deeper understanding of a decidedly younger audience.

Ever since the Amato Opera folded its tents a few seasons ago, opera for children has been difficult to locate in New York. I did enjoy the Met’s mounting of Hansel and Gretel in an adaptation for the younger attendees (and future patrons) after having seen its original “adult” production and so was primed and ready for this fantasy which brings the idea of our universal childishness (in the best sense) to the fore. Mozart, who knew his audience extremely well, would have loved it.

It is important to remember that the piece was written as a vaudeville for Schikaneder’s theater on the Margaretenstrasse, not as an effort for the Opernhaus at all, hence its name is Die Zauberflöte and not Il Flauto Magica. The challenge for this particular production team is what to leave in and what to leave out.

The first two notes of the overture seemed oddly wrong until one realized that this extraordinary piece of orchestral brilliance had been one of the casualties of the zeal of the team to streamline this performance to keep the moppets interested. It took a bit of time to get over this incredible slight (really, we could not have survived another eight minutes!), but at least we were all put on notice that it was to be an iconoclastic evening. This is a fitting moment to mention that there were a surprisingly small number of children at this performance after all.

So much has been written about the Taymor production over the years that let it be sufficient to state that it is magnificent and childlike in the best sense of the term. Of course, this unique work lives and dies by its Queen of the Night and this performance had a wonderful one. Mozart wrote the two arias “O zittre nicht” and “Der Hölle Rache” (sorry, force of habit) for his extraordinarily talented sister-in-law Josefa Hofer who apparently would have made a great Webern singer as well, as she had the ability to make Herculean vocal leaps throughout a set piece. Our Queen this night was an Englishwoman, Jessica Pratt, who made her seemingly impossible jumps with ease and navigated the notorious four high F’s with impressive aplomb. Her native accent showing through in this English version made her royalty especially significant and just a bit frightening (we didn’t want to upset the kids too severely).

Of course the suspension of disbelief has to be stretched just a tad and it may seem a bit fussy to mention that the rest of the cast was a crazy-quilt of styles and talents. Russell Thomas was a last minute call-up as Tamino. He performed yeomanlike service as a result but was a bit angular and only occasionally approached a purity of sound which is essential for this character. Christopher Maltman made for an excellent Papageno, combining a fluid instrument with a good deal of comic bona fides. Morris Robinson was a reliable but perhaps quotidian Sarastro who never seemed to dominate as much as his velvet bass would warrant. Janai Brugger was simply overmatched as Pamina.

Baseball and hockey fans will recognize “March of the Priests” as a thinly veiled precursor to “O Canada”, the Canadian national anthem. In this lighthearted and jocular version of the Mozart original, I would have loved to have seen the clerics march out in Mountie uniforms, but this is perhaps too Nelson Eddy for the targeted younger crowd. Overall this evening was a success, however I really missed that amazing overture.

Merry Christmas!

Fred Kirshnit



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