Mozart’s music may not always take second place when the Metropolitan Opera stages The Magic Flute, but—at least as long as I’ve been around—the productions have been mostly defined by their sets and costumes. And, true to form, the big buzz over the latest Flute centers on Julie Taymor, Tony-winning director of The Lion King, and her take on this immortal operatic fantasy. No wonder, since her Asian-influenced sense of theater, with its kite puppets, animal imagery, and masks, together with set designer George Tsypin’s translucent geometric shapes and sculptures, give the eyes plenty to take in. To judge from the roars of approval on opening night, audiences will be finding new visual marvels to savor in this production for many years to come.
Yes, Taymor’s stage is a very busy one, but not so frantic as to obscure what is at heart a fairly traditional approach to the dramatic action. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, their mythical realms located somewhere between the sun and the moon, are clearly depicted in a pitched battle between good and evil; the young lovers Tamino and Pamina are tested, grow, and become wise through their adventures; everyday folk like Papageno and Papagena remain endearingly unaware of life’s mysteries as they eat, drink, and make babies; and illusion is omnipresent as the characters wander through a world where humans of all ethnicities mix in surroundings that remain in a constant state of magical mutability. The stage pictures are dazzling, but the real wonder of Taymor’s production is how precisely movement is counterpointed with music to reflect the enormous emotional range of Mozart’s score, from slapstick comedy to solemn spirituality.
“This Magic Flute is likely to be remembered more for the way it looks than how it sounds.”
Taymor’s enchanted vision follows in step with past Met Magic Flutes, a tradition well worth recalling. The previous production was David Hockney’s 1990 version (originally designed for Glyndebourne in 1978), brushed all over with his typical crayon-box playfulness: painted drops filled with bold, colorful drawings of pyramids, obelisks, palm trees, desert expanses, stone heads, massive staircases, and trompe l’oeil temple interiors. Before that came the fondly remembered Marc Chagall production of 1967, another painterly approach full of that great master’s whimsical flying animals and fanciful human beings—one can only hope that this stunning work of art has been safely stored away somewhere for future reference. And those whose memories travel back even further will remember the Flute the Met commissioned for Mozart’s 1956 bicentennial, when general manager Rudolph Bing was startling audiences by importing famous names from Broadway and Hollywood to revolutionize the company’s production styles—which is exactly what the noted film designer Harry Horner accomplished in a production featuring freestanding three-dimensional sets and photographic projections that seemed, at the time, like the last word in modernistic stagecraft.
The current Met production, like its predecessors, is likely to be remembered more fondly for the way it looks than how it sounds. James Levine, always at his best in Mozart, gives a lithe, gleaming account of the score, but the singing leaves a lot to be desired. L’ubica Vargicová delivers the Queen of the Night’s scintillant coloratura flights gingerly and with scarcely a suggestion of the threat that motivates them, while Kwangchul Youn’s bass lacks the vocal weight, even legato, and solid low notes to give Sarastro’s solemn pronouncements authority. Also disappointing are Rodion Pogossov’s Papageno (a beaklike lid on his turned-around baseball hat is the most amusing thing about this pedestrian bird catcher) and Julien Robbins’s pallid Speaker. Dorothea Röschmann, on the other hand, is an exquisitely expressive Pamina, and Matthew Polenzani puts his bright lyric tenor to the best uses as Tamino, presented here as a dashing young samurai warrior. As soon as a stronger cast can join these two fine vocal talents, the Met’s new Magic Flute will be a show to hear as well as to see.