© Beth Bergman 2006
Since its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in the Fall of 2004, Julie Taymor's Broadway-translation of Mozart's (and really, where would we be without Emanuel Schikaneder's imaginative wallop of a libretto) Die Zauberflöte has claimed its rank among the Metropolitan Opera's tony legacy of directorial Zauberflöte collaborations, holding company with David Hockney and Marc Chagall -- which is why the Met has consistently offered Taymor's hit production among their yearly roster every year since its premiere. Stripped of its stellar cast from an amalgam of past seasons (Rene Pape, Nathan "black belt jones" Gunn, Dorothea Röschmann aka La Doro, queen not of the night but of all things Mozart, and Isabel Bayrakdarian, and Jonas Kaufmann) Taymor's vision still dazzles and provides a fertile backdrop for opera's up-and-coming singers to hone their live-stage manners.
The puppet-packed production has Taymor's stamp all over it: costume design, direction, concept, and puppetry are all her notions, while George Tsypin designed the sets, and Donald Holder tinkered with the lights. The collaboration -- craftsmanship is kissed & tickled by lofty kites and dancing birds -- sugar-coats Schikaneder's complex, layered themes of cruelty and psychological collapse, and even if sometimes OC thinks that Graham Vick's bombthrowing concept in Salzburg 2005, duly booed, where the Queen of the Night is good and Sarastro is evil, the leader of a hellish gang of gerontocrats, is really in the end the way to go, because she never bought the gooey layers of Masonic goodness, that's okay: with Taymor your ticket has granted you entry into a fantasy world where gigantic, billowing white bears keep at bay any of the Die Zauberflöte's ghastly, unpleasant themes (three attempted rapes, suicide, isolation, etc...).
After all, Mozart himself took his kid to see this opera, didn't he.
With such ambitious sets, the musical and dramatic pacing of the opera takes a few awkward hits, too-long codas stretched to infinity to accommodate intricate entrances and rotating sets. The Queen of the Night's inaugural arrival (" Sie kommt! Sie kommt!") was ungraceful, pocked with a long silence -- although such self-imposed codas made for a seemingly constant flow of applause that marked each scene.
The final Initiation was anti-climactic with the two leads riding in a shaky elevator. Upon completing the Initiation Rite at the Temple of Trials, passing through water and fire, an off-stage chorus emasculates the triumph of the task in a tamper that badly blows it. Which leaves us to ask ourselves: Can someone please set Die Zauberflöte in an American Frat House? The final initiation should entail paddles, beer kegs, and goats. Or something like Richard Linklater's 1993 Dazed and Confused.
In her Metropolitan Pamina role debut, the young damsel in distress was sung by Alabama native Susanna Phillips. Via her arias, she showed a deep comprehension of the score. But in recitative, she was oddly disconnected to the sets around her, her acting too bucolic and lighthearted for Mozart's savage vision (especially off putting in her cheerful salute to Papageno in Monostatos's den). In voice, she retained a thoughtful, secure tone with a pleasant color, and her duet with Papageno, "Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen" was lovely, their voices well matched. "Ach, ich fulh's" was sung with a ringing vibrato of desperation, very effective and chilling.
Hungarian soprano Erika Miklósa sang the Queen of the Night, which she first sang in her 2004 Metropolitan debut. Her first aria, "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" was bracing. Miklósa came well-practiced and prepared, and her solid technique anchored the aria with a clear, elegant voice, beautiful color and an effortless sound -- a voice well-suited to Mozart's black diamond arpeggi and trills. Which is why we were so disappointed with her "Der Holle Rache", where she completely lacked the anger and "hellish vengeance" of the angry mama, and gave instead a superficial interpretation. It simply needed more death and despair, passion and rage.
In his Metropolitan opera debut, Tamino was sung by German tenor Matthias Klink, a role he has prior sung at the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival. "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd scoen" had great introspection and phrasing, but his high register was marked by strangled and flat notes.
Papageno was sung by British baritone Christopher Maltman, who also made his Met role debut. He started out solidly, with a gorgeous, clear, light tone. But from the second act forward, he lacked energy. Probably just a bad night, he tampered-out by the final scenes and resorted to a flattened delivery.
German bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang his first MET Sarastro, but homeboy looked dazed, completely in his own world, and failed to impress the audience even during the enthusiastic curtain call. Vocally, his "O Isis und Osiris" was a nice standout, but still left much to be desired.
American bass-baritone David Pittsinger sang the Speaker, which he sang last in Taymor's 2006 production. He took a role that OC really doesn't care much about, and turned it into a highlight. His unique voice was full of character and expression, and he shaped the impersonal role with a lasting imprint.
American tenor Greg Fedderly sang Monostatos, the lustful slave master, to which Taymor modeled after a Nintendo video game level boss (Wario, anyone?) His interpretation was fabulous because he played the role lightly, without making it too hammy or ~mwahaha evil~. Props to G-Fed.
Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie also made his Met debut on the podium, 'tho no stranger to New York (he conducted Handel’s Orlando at Glimmerglass and Così fan tutte at the Mostly Mozart Festival). His overture, that schizophrenic ode to the cruelty that's about to ensue, started off fittingly disoriented, the lines a bit delineated and ebbing. As the night progressed, Labadie grew stronger and his tempi were confident, while never imposing or frantic. He showed a deep respect for Mozart's music. It was wholly transparent that he was well-prepared, well-studied, and had a deep understanding and resonance with the score, giving a valiant performance that shaped Mozart's manuscript with dignity.
Collectively, Taymor's happy puppets and shiny things distracted and glazed over the stark despair of the late 18th century opera. Instead, birds, kites and fairytale, imaginary spirits subtracted from any of Die Zauberflöte's Masonic-influenced ~tough sh1t~ themes. Die Zauberflöte's fearsome themes crumpled away as easily as Taymor's paper dragon.