Magic Wins — Die Zauberflöte at the Met

We caught Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) Thursday night. It’s a Julie Taymor production, not new to the Met, though the previous version had used the English libretto.

I may be one of the few New Yorker’s who has never seen The Lion King. This was my first Taymor experience and it was pretty wow. The costumes and sets suggested everything from ancient Egypt (supported by many references in the libretto to ancient Egyptian gods) to Asia and Africa. The three spirits, played by boys whose voices had not yet broken – looked like Dr Suess characters. Monostatos reminded me of the head blue meanie from Yellow Submarine. There were giants puppets too including ominous gigantic figures with flames instead of faces.There were dancing bird-maidens, and other strange creatures and masks that reminded me of Vermont summers at Bread and Puppet.

The puppets were controlled by darkly cloaked humans, whom the audience learned not to see. This is a Japanese technique and in last season’s production of Madama Butterfly it was used. It worked much better in this fairy-tale setting than in the more realistic Butterfly. In Butterfly, where a child was “played” by a dead-eyed puppet, it was just creepy. In Die Zauberflöte the puppets were non-human creatures or props.

If I hadn’t read the notes, I wouldn’t know what to make of the libretto. It’s a story that takes place in a magical land in which a prince rescues a princess. But it was meant to be an allegory, with the Queen of the Night representing superstition and Sarastro and his brotherhood standing in for enlightenment and reason. Huh? To a modern audience this doesn’t hold or make much sense. It doesn’t have to in order for you to enjoy Mozart’s music, or the antics of Papageno – ably sung and acted by baritone, Markus Werba. The beautiful Princess Pamina was sung by Pretty Yenda, who I expect will become a Met favorite. Ana Durlovski garnered the love of the audience for her Queen of the Night. Rene Pape who last we saw as a dignified Banquo in MacBeth was a dignified Sarastro. I found Toby Spence a bit bland as Tamino, but it’s not a flashy role.

The libretto as in other Mozart operas contains more than its share of snide comments regarding the nature of women. Most of these were taken as uneasy laugh lines by the audience. But again, given that a modern audience can only take the story seriously as a fairy-tale, and that the sets and costumes in this production were absolutely magical – magic wins, even if the Queen does not. There’s also a lot of dancing – all it whimsically choreographed. In short, there’s nothing very scary, nothing that isn’t family friendly, and for those reasons I wish they’d done it English. I don’t think it would have added anything artistically, but it wouldn’t have taken away much either, and it would have made the opera more accessible for children, families and others new to the form. (It would have helped fill seats and grown the audiene, something the Met needs to be doing more of.)

Tuesday, October 21st is Yende’s final outing, and Pape’s. There are still seats available for all performances. We went via the lottery, which unfortunately is not open to non-residents of the United States or even oddly enough residents of Florida, but other reasonably priced full view places can still be had.

I couldn’t find a legal clip from this 2014, but here’s one from 2011 in English, with Nathan Gunn singing Papageno in English:

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