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An Enchanted and Enchanting Fable

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
09/23/2009 -  & September 26, 30*, 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute
Matthias Klink (Tamino), Susanna Phillips (Pamina), Christopher Maltman (Papageno), Erika Miklósa (Queen of the Night), Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro), Greg Fedderly (Monostotos), Kathleen Kim (Papagena), Wendy Bryn-Harmer (First Lady), Jamie Barton (Second Lady), Tamara Mumford (Third Lady), David Pittsinger (Speaker), David Crawford (First Priest), Bernard Fitch (Second Priest), Jakob Taylor (First Spirit), Samuel Dylan-Rosner (Second Spirit), Jacob A. Wade (Third Spirit), Phillip Webb (First Armed Man), Richard Bernstein (Second Armed Men), Rachel Schuette (Solo Dancer)
Denis Bouriakov (Flute Solo), Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bernard Labadie (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)

For me, there has always been an almost unbearable poignancy about The Magic Flute – an opera like none other, by an artist who is without peer. The context within which this masterpiece was written and first performed certainly plays a role. The Magic Flute had its premiere just nine weeks before Mozart’s death at the age of 35. With it, he finally had an unambiguous public success in Vienna. He conducted the first performance and attended subsequent ones, during which he was sufficiently robust to play practical jokes on Emmanuel Schikaneder, his librettist and his Papageno. However, his health then declined precipitously and he took to his bed. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) that he kept a watch on his pillow, so that he could follow the events on stage. Undoubtedly, he heard the music in his head. And what music!

The Metropolitan Opera has given us a marvelously inventive production by Julie Taymor. It premiered in 2004, and was revived last season, in an abbreviated English version. As part of Peter Gelb’s ambitious outreach efforts to new opera goers – in this case a new generation of them – the opera was reconfigured. Thanks to an eight year-old girl, who happened to be sitting next to me, I had the pleasure of experiencing The Magic Flute through the wide eyes of a child. And it was truly magical. For its revival this season, the Met is presenting the full opera in German. On the evening I attended, there was not a child in sight.

While the plot is superficially quite simple, it has proven susceptible to varying interpretations be they philosophical, psychological, political, or religious. Prince Tamino, along with his companion, a simple birdcatcher called Papageno, is sent a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. She is being held by Sarastro who, we are led to believe, is evil. Half way through the opera, however, Tamino realizes that things are not what they seem. Sarastro is good and the Queen is evil. He bravely endures the trials of fire, air, earth, and water and is rewarded with Pamina. Papageno remains a creature of nature. He does not aspire to philosophical truths. The rewards he seeks are of a more earthly kind – wine, good food, and especially someone to love who will love him. At the end, he is given his Papagena.

With her puppets, and masks and costumes, Taymor gives this production a universality by tapping into so many traditions, including Japanese and Javanese. This broad palette is fully in keeping with the nature of the work both thematically and with respect to its musical nomenclature.

The Queen of the Night is a character taken straight out of opera seria. The two armed men sing in counterpoint. Sarastro and his priests sing Masonic hymns. Papageno’s musical language is the folk song. The genres too are mixed. There is plenty of comedy and also a rather tragic element embodied by Tamino’s metaphysical angst at the end of Act one. “O ewige Nacht, wann wirst du schwinden?” is perhaps the finest musical embodiment of man’s groping and at times unsuccessful search for meaning and moral bearings in a seemingly inexplicable universe.

Julie Taymor filled the stage with all manner of phantasmagoria, puppets, dancing bears, birds, and hilariously campy henchmen. And she gave us a gorgeous feast for the eyes. With only two exceptions, both involving Papageno, I found the complex stage business not at all intrusive. It neither distracted from Mozart’s music nor undermined the complexity of his characters.

I suppose that it’s rather a paradox. Any problems that I did have with the elaborate stage business during both Papageno’s wistful lament about his loneliness, and his joyous duet with Papagena result from one of the best aspects of this production – the casting of Christopher Maltman as Papageno.

For me, and doubtless many others, the most lovable character Mozart ever created was Papageno. He is charming and fun in his naďve way. The children certainly found him so last Christmas, Here, in this production for adults, Maltman was a superb comedian. With his immaculate diction, every word was audible. He gave attention to telling gestures, be they vocal or physical. He made the character live. Whenever I looked at him on stage, even while others were singing, he was responsive and attentive and engaged. He did not try to steal the show, but he did steal it, by giving his Papageno a dimension I have never seen portrayed so successfully.

In most productions, Tamino evolves psychologically but Papageno really does not. Maltman’s Papageno, in contrast, was no mere companion on Tamino’s journey. He was on a psychological journey of his own. Papageno’s quest for love took on increasing urgency. His decision to hang himself is usually played mostly for laughs since he is rescued, first by the boys and then by his magic bells. But Maltman, played it straight. And it was deeply affecting.

Clearly on display were Maltman’s talents for characterization, enunciation, and communication with an audience – skills he honed as a lieder singer. He won the Cardiff Song Prize in 1997, eight years after Bryn Terfel. His recordings of lieder are extraordinary. I particularly admire his Schumann songs. But he has also distinguished himself in opera, as a notable Mozartean. I do hope that we will see a lot more of him at the Met.

Georg Zeppenfeld, a young member of the Semperoper in Dresden made a distinguished Met debut as Sarastro. He sang with a deep sonorous bass and cut an imposing, dignified figure. He sang with unforced power, superb enunciation (imbuing the spoken text with meaning) and an excellent legato line. I am not at all surprised that he won great praise for his recent King Marke at Glyndebourne.
Erika Miklósa, returning to the Met as the Queen of the Night, sang beautifully. She had a beautiful bell-like tone, excellent intonation and phrasing, and spot on coloratura. She was also a very graceful presence on stage.

Matthias Kink, in his Met debut, turned in a rather uneven performance. He gave us a rich-voiced “Dies bildnis” with a fine legato line. And he did seem to warm up a bit in act two, but his soft singing, particularly at the upper end of his range, sounded muffled. At the lower end, however, and when he sang with more volume, he was much better. Susanna Phillips as Pamina gave a fine performance. She has a lovely voice – rich, mellow, with nuanced dynamics. Her duet with Maltman in act one was one of the highlights of the evening.

Greg Fedderly played Monostotos for laughs, but he also imbued the character with a certain humanity. He’s an excellent comic actor with a fine baritone voice. Kathleen Kim’s Papagena was lovely. She sang with grace and a fine lyrical voice. Her chemistry with Maltman was excellent. I did find, however, that the proliferation of black-clad puppeteers on stage, manipulating a veritable swarm of birds, detracted from the heart-warming sense of joyous discovery projected by both Maltman and Kim.

In the small but crucial role of the Speaker, David Pittsinger was excellent. With his beautiful tone and perfect enunciation, his performance was dramatically and emotionally powerful. Mozart gave the two armed men who guard the Temple in the second act wonderfully archaic-sounding music to sing. I have never heard a better performance than this one, by Phillip Webb and Richard Bernstein. The set was spectacular -- with two huge figures with heads of fire under their turbans, bathed in golden light.

The Met chorus was, as always, superb. They sang the sublime music Mozart wrote for Sarastro’s priests with superb dynamic control. Their soft singing can only be described as ethereal. In his Met debut, conductor, Bernard Labadie, the founder and director of Les Violons du Roy, fully captured both the sprightly and the majestic aspects of the score. As he did in his overture to Don Giovanni, Mozart set the musical and dramatic action on two levels. Labadie’s reading of Mozart’s exquisite writing for woodwinds was fully on display here.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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