Julie Taymor’s Timeless Production Doesn’t Get the Show it Deserves
By Chris Ruel
(Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
During the holiday season, the Met’s annual presentation of a family-friendly, abridged version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” sung in English is a treat for the young and the young-at-heart. The show’s runtime is shy of two hours, and the Julie Taymor production, though getting a bit dated, offers plenty of spectacle and goofiness to keep fidgety kids engaged. (While sung in English, this review uses the German titles of arias.)
The bare bones plot is one readily recognizable by children: a prince goes on a quest to find a princess who has been kidnapped. Throw in an evil queen and chatty sidekick, and you have all the ingredients found in a traditional fairy tale. This is “Flute’s” secret sauce; its ability to endure comes from its stunning music and the story’s timelessness.
After Mozart’s longtime collaborator, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was booted from his position by royal command, Mozart’s hit-making but now scandal-ridden and impoverished librettist moved to the United States and ran various businesses. In 1828, he made his way back into opera and founded America’s first opera house, the New York Opera Company.
Meanwhile, back in Austria, Mozart was doubtlessly bummed by the loss of his librettist. Who could step into Da Ponte’s shoes? Enter Emanuel Schikaneder, an old friend of Mozart’s who had taken over the directorship of the Theater auf der Weiden, a.k.a. the Freyhaustheater. The impresario enjoyed significant success, staging operas, plays, and singspiel productions.
The details of how the Mozart/Schikaneder partnership came to be has been debated among musicologists, and there are not a few myths floating around, one positing that Schikaneder was destitute and couldn’t pay Mozart for his work, so the great composer took on writing a massive opera pro bono. That one is quite dubious; even Mozart had bills to pay. Besides, Schikaneder ran a highly successful troupe, which included Mozart’s sister-in-law, coloratura soprano Josepha Hofer, the originator of the Queen of the Night.
What’s true and what’s not surrounding “The Magic Flute” is fodder for fun speculation and has been for over two centuries, i.e., Mozart being murdered at the hands of fellow Masons or Mozart murdered by Salieri. Mozart and Schikaneder were both Masons, so if the Brothers were out to silence Mozart for revealing their secrets in operatic form, wouldn’t they take out Schikaneder, too? He wrote the story! No, boringly, Mozart’s death in 1791 was of illness. But before he left, he gave us “The Magic Flute.”
Kids are the Best Critics
While the operas written in collaboration with Da Ponte were huge successes and have forever remained in the repertoire, none have the magic of “Flute.” Departing from the sex farces written for the court, Mozart wrote what is considered the first popular musical—popular both in success and in nature. “Flute” was always meant to be entertainment for all. However, that didn’t strip the work of meaning, and here’s where the Masons enter the scene. Mozart’s involvement in the Brotherhood has been commented upon ad nauseam so that the point won’t be belabored in this review. The one aspect that should be pointed out, as it pertains to the Taymor production, in particular, is its use of Masonic symbolism, some of which comes right from the frontispiece of the original printed libretto, complete with circles, squares, triangles, and arches, along with the mysterious shapes akin to hieroglyphics.
So, there’s the background without too repetition of previous reviews and analyses. Let’s move on and look at the 2022-23 production’s opening night on Friday, December 16.
There is much to like about the abridged version, even as an adult. The full-length “Die Zauberflöte” can be a slog for those new to opera or the opera-curious. Encouraging this cohort to try the art form with the foreshortened version in English is a fantastic introduction. The Met lines up one show-stopping moment after another: from brilliant puppetry featuring enormous birds and dancing bears to three kids (the Three Spirits) suspended from the fly space singing the sweetest melodies. It’s one “Wow!” after another.
Kids are the best critics, and they don’t hold back their thoughts. The production has succeeded when they laugh at Papageno’s antics or ooh and ahh at the giant statues spitting flames from their heads. That’s important because it’s creatively re-thought shows like “Flute,” adapted specifically for children and non-opera-goers that create the next generation of opera fans, or so one hopes. What the kids hear regarding vocal virtuosity shouldn’t be discounted, but they’re not sitting back thinking, “Oh, no, the offstage choir was off by a beat.” That’s for others to pick up.
Strong Work from a Trio of Principals
Designed for children or not, Met audiences are due a world-class performance. The show’s opening night did not meet that standard, unfortunately.
Sometimes opening nights feel like a final dress rehearsal; this one felt like it was far earlier in the rehearsal process. Overall, the show was lifeless and vocally dull. The orchestra was molasses in its tempi. Cues were missed. And except for three of the principals, the singers appeared out of their element, to be paying more attention to producing the right notes than providing their characters with personality.
In an opera full of Masonic numerology revolving around the number three, it’s ironic that three of the principals gave the best performances of the evening. In the role of Princess Pamina, soprano Joélle Harvey had an excellent outing. Her voice is a sparkling coloratura, and she used a full range of dynamics and shading, providing a nuanced performance with personality. Her “Ach, ich fühl’s” was dreamy as she floated the high notes pianissimo, including high Bs. Harvey was playful, joyous, torn, in love, devastated… name the emotion, and Harvey nailed it, making her stage presence captivating and engaging.
Singing opposite Harvey was tenor Ben Bliss as Prince Tamino. Like his counterpart, Bliss came out swinging vocally and dramatically. Bliss’ brassiness lent a certain determined innocence to the character, and his acting was strong. Tamino’s takeaway number, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaudbernd schön,” isn’t full of vocal fireworks. Instead, it’s a touching love song full of longing and innocent desire. The aria is one during which you can close your eyes and have a solid understanding of what’s being sung, regardless of language. Like Harvey, Bliss appeared at home on stage and hammed up his frustration at Papageno’s chattiness, cowardice, and willingness to remain an ordinary bird catcher rather than gaining great wisdom.
In the role of the lovable bird man, Joshua Hopkins had a wonderful sense of comedic timing, played to the crowd, and as is typical, drew the most laughter outside of Monostatos (tenor Rowell Rosel) opening his bat-winged costume and flashing his comically hideous figure to scare away foes.
Harvey, Bliss, and Hopkins were the glue that held the shaky performance from falling apart.
The Struggles of a Queen and a Priest
Some may disagree, but the show’s true star is the Queen of the Night. She has the barn burner arias with which a coloratura can put jaws on the floor. It’s painful to say, but Alessandra Olczyk muddled her way through both “Zum Leiden” and “Der Hölle Rache.” She did not appear or sound ready for one of the highest-profile role in the opera. Olczyk’s movements were stilted and unexciting as she focused on the notes, looking too afraid to move. Queens of the Night don’t park and bark, but that’s what the audience got. Vocally, Olczyk was shaky—unstable—which was frightening knowing both arias’ demanding jumps, runs, and high notes. The mommy dearest of opera was missing in action, and the wicked vitality, menace, and over-the-top drama fell short. No doubt, Olczyk has big shoes to fill, and while the performance was her Met debut, she has sung the role at big-name houses in Germany and her native Poland. When all was sung and done, she still drew the loudest applause at curtain call, though the audience response to her arias was tepid.
Mozart likes to play with extremes. “Der Hölle Rache” tops out with an F6, while Sarastro bottoms out with an F2 in “Isis and Osiris.” These are generally the highest and lowest notes a soprano and bass are asked to sing, respectively. High notes are dangerous, and low notes are equally so. Basso profundos performing Sarastro should shake the floor. However, an unfortunate truth about being a bass is that some roles—Sarastro, one of them—require vocal maturity. This is not to the exclusion of younger basses, who do can navigate the deepest vocal trenches in music, but those are not the norm.
Soloman Howard is a great bass who has had a solid Met Opera career, but he, like Olczyk, came across as unsure and concerned about the notes. And like Olczyk, the role isn’t new to him, but the timidity stripped the booming character of its thunder gravity. The final F2 of “O Isis un Osiris” simply wasn’t there, and the maestro, Duncan Ward, brought the dynamics up to cover the singer’s exposure.
Why the Queen and Sarastro went vocally sideways is anyone’s guess, but when those two characters underperform, the opera pays dearly.
Problems in the Pit
Turing attention to the band under Duncan Ward, it did not have a stellar outing. Ward’s pacing was slow, perhaps because he knew a few of his soloists were struggling; that’s pure speculation, of course, but he had to have known. Ward’s elegant style is full of small, refined, and precise gestures. Yet, somehow the offstage chorus fell behind, and Olczyk and Howard kept a noticeably tight eye on the maestro as if seeking guidance and adding to the rehearsal-like feel. This wasn’t the case with Harvey, Bliss, or Hopkins.
The orchestra came across as half-hearted. Mozart wrote some of his most thrilling music for “Flute,” but it played too slowly, soft, and lacked punch. For example, the second bar of “Der Hölle Rache” has a lightning fast four 32nd grace notes that lead to the sforzando orchestra hit before the Queen launches into her rage. The hit sounded squishy and uncertain. The tremolo strings in the first bar were ill-timed and seemed to catch Olczyk by surprise, which, right off the bat, warned of what lay ahead. From the seats, it sounded like a “let’s try that again” moment, but there are no do-overs in live musical theater except when a singer burns the place down and the audience demands an encore.
One aspect of the Met’s adaptation that has never sat well is the exclusion of the Overture; it’s a fantastic piece of music and gets everyone’s blood pumping. Remove it from the opera, and the orchestra loses its showpiece as the music goes right into “Zu Hilfe!” when the curtain opens. To exclude the Overture is a bit of an insult to the audience. Is it thought too long? A six-minute pop song is long. A six-minute overture, not so much. If the fear is that the kids will grow antsy because nothing is happening on stage, there’s been a failure of imagination. The Met production of “Così fan tutte” uses the overture to introduce a coterie of performers—a fire eater, a sword swallower, a snake handler, and a bearded lady, among other midway artists. Indeed, the Met, full of amazing creatives and a brilliant ballet corps, could fill “Flute” Overture with spellbinding artistry.
Speaking of the ballet corps, they never fail to charm and delight as they strut and dance flamingo-like around Papageno. Their appearance is always a highlight.
As mentioned earlier, the Taymor set isn’t the wonder it used to be, and some costumes are inscrutable. Sarastro and Tamino dress in quasi-Kabuki outfits while members of the Brotherhood look like Dada artist Hugo Ball reading “Karawane” at Cabaret Voltaire. Meanwhile, Papageno wears a backward baseball cap with a bird bill. Though lacking in sartorial consistency, the costuming helps keep the opera in the realm of fantasy.
Taymor’s “Flute” is known for its mind-boggling puppetry. And no matter how many times you see the show, watching three very young singers travel slowly across the length of the stage while sitting on a trapeze at a dizzying height is breathtaking.
The Met is premiering a new production of “Die Zauberflöte” by Simon McBurney at the end of the season. Will it replace Taymor’s as its family production? That’s to be determined, but there’s a high degree of whimsy in the current show, and maybe, for that reason, it should remain the Met’s holiday “Flute” adaptation of choice.