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The Most Magical of Magic Flutes

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/22/2008 -  & 27, 30, 31 December, January 1, 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
Dimitri Pittas (Tamino), Nicole Cabell (Pamina), Rodion Pogossov (Papageno), Cyndia Sieden (Queen of the Night), Eric Owens (Sarastro), Alan Oke (Monostatos), Kathleen Kim (Papagena), Wendy Bryn-Harmer (First Lady), Kate Lindsey (Second Lady), Maria Zitchak (Third Lady), John Del Carlo (Speaker), James Courtney (First Priest), Bernard Fitch (Second Priest), Jakob Taylor (First Spirit), Samuel Dylan-Rosner (Second Spirit), Jacob A. Wade (Third Spirit), Ronald Naldi (First Guard), Richard Bernstein (Second Guard), Rachel Schuette (Solo Dancer)
Stephanie Mortimore (Flute Solo), Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Asher Fisch (Conductor)
Julie Taymor (Production), George Tsypin (Set Design), Julie Taymor (Costume Design), Julie Taymor and Michael Curry (Puppet Design), Donald Holder (Lighting Design), David Kneuss (Stage Director), Mark Dendy (Choreographer)

In his enchanting film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Ingmar Bergman invited viewers to enjoy this timeless masterpiece through the eyes of a child, a beautiful blonde girl sitting in the audience of the Drottningholm Theatre, an 18th century jewel that seems to float on an island just outside Stockholm. In New York, three days before Christmas, I got another chance to experience my favorite opera through the eyes of a child –in this case, an eight-year old girl named Subia. I marveled at the thought that she was actually two years older than little Wolfgang Amadeus had been when his father, Leopold Mozart, began to write down the boy’s musical compositions.

Subia had come to the Met with her grandmother. She had never been to an opera or even a concert. I told her the story and, with her grandmother’s permission, showed her the orchestra pit and the conductor’s desk. I explained that I had first discovered opera at the age of fifteen and have loved it every since. “I am only eight!” she exclaimed. Clearly, she was ripe for a peak experience.

This version of The Magic Flute, pared from over three hours to under two, and with a spiffy English translation by J.D. McClatchy, was designed to appeal to children. There was no intermission; two acts were configured into twelve scenes. Restroom breaks were allowed but, most of the children remained in their seats.

As the opera unfolded, I looked at Subia from time to time. She was transfixed. By the last chorus, she was moving her hands in semicircular motion to the rhythm of the music. The Met’s youngest conductor, and a success story for Peter Gelb, the ever-inventive General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera. Opera and classical music generally badly need to find creative ways to appeal to the next generation. As part of his mission to do just that, Gelb made the decision to mount this adaptation of the extraordinarily successful 2004 Julie Taymor production -- the first opera televised by the Met worldwide in HD.

In the version of the story that I told Subia, Tamino, a handsome prince, is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter from an evil man named Sarastro. As a companion on his journey, Tamino takes a bird catcher named Papageno, a friendly fellow with a problem sticking to the truth, who also wants to find someone to love – his Papagena. In order to keep them safe, the Queen’s Three Ladies give them a magic flute (for Tamino) and magic bells (for Papageno). They also send along three boys who will act as their guardian angels.

But things are not what they seem. Tamino discovers that Sarastro is actually a wise and kind man who wants only the best for Tamino and Pamina. It is the Queen who is evil. Tamino and Pamina then go through tests to prove that they are worthy and wise – tests that Papageno fails to pass. At the end, Papageno finds his bride and the forces of Sarastro defeat those of the Queen. Tamino and Pamina will reign with justice and wisdom over Sarastro’s kingdom.

Julie Taymor calls The Magic Flute a metaphysical fairy tale and, as such, it is laden with symbolic and psychological meaning well beyond the ken of most of the young audience. Many interpretations have been put forth. From a psychological view, the opera chronicles the coming of age of Tamino. Mozart was a child of the Enlightenment, so one can also view the opera as a journey from the realm of irrational darkness to the light of reason. Mozart and many of his contemporaries, including Haydn and America’s founding fathers, were Masons. The opera is replete with Masonic references such as the centrality of the number three and the trials that Tamino must undergo to be initiated into the brotherhood.

The opera is an extraordinary composite of various musical genres. The Queen’s two arias could have been taken straight out of an opera seria, a form that came into its own during the baroque period but persisted into the later 18th century; La Clemenza di Tito, technically Mozart’s last opera (although he did put the finishing touches on The Magic Flute after La Clemenza premiered in Prague), is an opera seria. With the two arias of Sarastro and the sublime choruses of the priests, Mozart was the first to use the classical hymn in a religious context to convey moral imperatives such as truth telling.

The form of The Magic Flute can be traced back to the dramatic fables of the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi through his influence on the development of the Viennese comedy of magic. Gozzi’s aim of synthesizing many disparate elements fits The Magic Fluteto a T.

Julie Taymor, who directed her first opera long before she became famous for the The Lion King, is the conceptual force behind this production. She created gorgeous tableaux, crafted with an artist’s eye. The Met’s stage has never been more filled with life and movement. The vocabulary from which Taymor drew her inspiration was virtually global, in keeping with the universality of the opera’s theme. In the first scene, the dragon killed by the Three Ladies (who wear Venetian masks) is a Javanese puppet that spans the width of the stage. Tamino is costumed as a Japanese prince. Egyptian symbols adorn the sets.

The effects are spectacular. The Queen of the Night appears with enormous moth wings, which vibrate as she hits her pyrotechnical high notes. Papageno, sporting a baseball cap with a beak, dances with a gaggle of ostriches on point. With so many compelling and ravishing visual images one might think that the spectacle would detract and distract from the music. But it doesn’t. On the contrary. The airborne images dance to the music of Mozart. And the effect is joyous. The rotating set is simple and versatile, a vision out of analytical cubism. Taymor and her set designer, George Tsypin, created what she calls mirror kaleidoscopes to house both outer and inner landscapes.

In order to engage the children, these young singers had to be convincing actors. And they were. Dimitri Pittas (Tamino) had a clear bright sound and a lovely legato line. Cyndia Sieden (Queen of the Night) sang her coloratura lines with a bell-like tone and bright top notes. Eric Owens (Sarastro) was an uplifting presence with his gravitas and deep sonorous voice. Rodion Pogossov (Papageno), a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, was the children’s favorite, with his warm baritone voice, terrific acting, and fearless jumping and climbing (befitting a bird catcher). In a small role, Kathleen Kim (Papagena) sang with a lovely lyrical voice. The Three Ladies turned in performances of high camp and great verve. Alan Oke (Monostatos) was deliciously evil. Pamina (Nicole Cabell), in her Met debut, sang with a lovely expressive voice with beautiful vocal color, particularly in her middle and lower registers. She conveyed all the dimensions of Pamina’s character and her music: innocence as she sang with Papageno; determination in the face of the power of Sarastro; abject despair when she mistook Tamino’s vow-inspired silence for an absence of love; and finally, the greatest evocation of love in all opera – the first eight measures of her duet with Tamino.

Under the baton of conductor, Asher Fisch, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, gave gorgeous expression to every dimension of the opera – the stateliness of Sarastro and the priests, the playfulness and sprightliness of Papageno, and, the lush inevitability of the descending spiral postlude after Pamina’s aria of despair. The chorus was extraordinary, taking the hymns that Mozart wrote to ethereal heights.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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