Cher Public

Dark matter

Star, flaming

Julie Taymor’s production of Die Zauberflöte at the Met does what one wants for the opera: it gives its composer and performers a chance to shine. Despite her zany costumes, infamous dancing bears, and a set that manages to be both pleasant looking and utilitarian, Taymor’s stage direction remains simple enough to allow the music—and by extension, the voice—to take center stage. 

On Wednesday night, at the season premiere of the opera, the lingering presence of Maestro James Levine made itself known from the pit, where the august conductor led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a tepid, though adequate reading of the score.

Among the many performances, Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night made good on her character’s name: she was the clear audience favorite. And for good reason. Her two show-stopping arias—“O zittre nicht…” and “Der Hölle Rache…“—highlighted her stratospheric range and nimble vocal dexterity. Despite a slightly brittle sound in the middle voice, her performance showcased a fearless artist with a unique instrument.

Likewise, in her debut at the house, Golda Schultz was equally affecting as Pamina. In the famous aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” her gathered, creamy soprano spun long phrases of vibrant, acoustically resonant sound.

As Tamino, Charles Castronovo possessed the heroic qualities required of the character. His tenor was darkly hued, with an almost baritonal timbre that suited Tamino’s more serious demeanor. His regal bearing contrasted nicely with the pleasantly oafish buffoonery of Markus Werba, whose good-natured Papageno provoked a few laughs while remaining authentically rooted in character and action.

Continuing this exercise of well-managed singing and smartly tempered acting, Wendy Bryn Hammer, Sarah Mesko and Tamara Mumford were a smart set of three ladies. They moved briskly about the stage, well matched vocally; they were especially effective in bringing Taymor’s more interesting stage tricks to life. Their use of puppetry to present the three ladies as disembodied, floating heads remained a vivid gesture of stage magic, though at times they did resemble oversized singing sperm.

Unfortunately, the entire cast did not fair as well as these leading performers. Christian Van Horn, as the Speaker, wavered in pitch and vocal quality; Taymor’s striking sets and costumes swallowed and consumed him. Similarly, Tobias Kehrer’s Sarastro seemed annoyingly pedantic, failing to project paternal warmth and majesty with his singing.

As a work of music-theater, a whole host of concerns swirl around the character of Sarastro. If one buys his paternalistic rhetoric, then one is much more likely to forgive Die Zauberflöte’s problematic and old fashioned values. Indeed, the uncomfortable proposition attending the opera is that in order to enjoy Mozart’s genius score, one must also contend with Emanuel Schikaneder’s moronic libretto.

This is a text that indulges all sorts of sexual, racial, and class stupidities, while remaining overtly corny and sentimental on notions of the Enlightenment and brotherhood. While watching Die Zauberflöte, one can easily see how such cultural values, lousy with ridiculous prejudice, could be taken to the extreme—resulting in, among other things, racial, ethnic, and sexual genocide.

While much has been said of Die Zauberflöte’s similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the opera also participates in the same tradition as the playwright’s A Midsummer Nights’ Dream. The protagonists of both narratives leave the safety of light (the rule of a masculine sun god: domain of reason, order, and truth), in order to explore and utilize the wild possibilities inherent to darkness. Tamino’s quest is one that passes from feminine, lunar shadow—where reason has been voided, and pure emotion reigns—into the masculine brotherhood of light.

In Schikaneder’s patriarchal cosmology, this darkness is the province of emotional women—not just the erratic fury of the Queen of the Night, but the pathetic supplications of Pamina as well. For example, in his quest to achieve enlightenment, love, and friendship, Tamino is instructed by Sarastro’s brotherhood to remain implacably silent; he is exhorted to shut his ears to anyone who bids him to speak, including Pamina, who desperately craves an affectionate word.

Mozart utilizes this plot point to swell Pamina’s pathos. The audience easily succumbs. And yet, by the metrics of Schikaneder, yielding to such protestations is weak, cowardly, and (worst of all) unmanly. As the audience capitulates to Pamina’s sorrow, indulging her desire to be heard, we are convicted by the scenario. In short—we fail Sarastro’s test. Consequently, a more liberal sensibility will find itself more aligned with Papageno, the bird catcher, and his working class sensibilities, instead of Tamino’s princely pretention.

Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Die Zauberflöte offers a director the chance to think radically about fashion and fantasy. And Taymor’s ingenuity is remarkable at times, though in retrospect many of the costumes, by Taymor as well (with makeup designs by Reiko Kruk), tend to make the cast look like Teletubbies in cheap knock-offs of Comme des Garçons.

Where Taymor’s production is successful is where it elides the more uncomfortable and distasteful aspects of Schikaneder’s simple-minded libretto. While the socio-political, misogynistic, racist, and classist implications of the narrative cannot be eradicated or ignored, Taymor’s artistic vision and deft mise en scène move the proceedings along swiftly, enabling Mozart’s perfect music to gracefully leap forward and over the ugly philosophical pitfalls.

All this is to say: what I got from this season’s Die Zauberflöte is what I’ve come to expect and hope for—impressive singing of a sublime score. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m in no hurry to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, despite Taymor’s well-intentioned stabs at innovation, bathwater remains, as ever, bathwater.

Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera

  • Camille

    At least the bathwater is warm, right?

    A very helpful and interestingly delineated review.

    The moronic libretto is precisely why I plan to attend the shortened version, for it’s such a beautiful, well, beyond beautiful, score but so befouled by all the above-mentioned faults plus all the intricate ins and outs, that I prefer the family-friendly version. Es ist genug.

    • laddie

      “for it’s such a beautiful, well, beyond beautiful, score but so befouled by all the above-mentioned faults” is why the piece DEMANDS provocative, regie treatment. Taymor’s is less than that IMHO.

      • Donna Annina

        Which is why I really enjoyed Kosky’s cinematic phantasmagoria (did I spell that correctly?) which matched up perfectly (imo) with Schikaneder’s equally phantasmagoric libretto.

  • Ivy Lin

    “This is a text that indulges all sorts of sexual, racial, and class stupidities, while remaining overtly corny and sentimental on notions of the Enlightenment and brotherhood. While watching Die Zauberflöte, one can easily see how such cultural values, lousy with ridiculous prejudice, could be taken to the extreme—resulting in, among other things, racial, ethnic, and sexual genocide.”

    Help me out here. I really, really am having trouble connecting the dots between Mozart’s paean to the Freemasons and “racial, ethnic, and sexual genocide.” And … what the hell is sexual genocide? Killing off all women?

    • La Cieca

      The idea I think is that at least as expressed in this libretto, the Freemason ideal is that all men are brothers, with emphasis on the “men.” Women need not apply.

      As Patrick points out above, the Queen and Pamina are presented as examples of faulty thinking: they can’t be logical because they are women and operate out of uncontrolled emotion.

      Tamino discovers that he is in error thinking Sarastro is a tyrant: he was deliberately deceived by the Queen who lied to him in order use him as a pawn in her scheme. Part of his enlightenment process is learning not to trust women in general:

      Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken,
      dies ist des Bundes erste Pflicht;
      manch weiser Mann ließ sich berücken,
      er fehlte und versah sich’s nicht.
      Verlassen sah er sich am Ende,
      vergolten seine Treu’ mit Hohn! –
      Vergebens rang er seine Hände,
      Tod und Verzweiflung war sein Lohn.

      Later Sarastro explains that the Queen is not like a supervillain or anything, she just doesn’t have a man around to tell her what to do.

      And part of the trial is seeing if Tamino is man enough to be deliberately cruel to the woman he loves. The organization recognizes she may be driven to attempt suicide so they have safety plans in place.

      Tamino is the one who gets to join the Brotherhood. Pamina is his +1.

      “Sexual genocide” is a very strong term, but we are talking about people whose use for women is pretty restricted.

      • PATRICK MACK

        Are we grafting far more serious crimes onto a 200+ year old entertainment? I can’t imagine Mozart, who was some kind of early feminist since love and peace always come through his female characters, really intended what this review proposes.
        (Now I’m hiding under a table)

        • Bill

          Patrick -- No need to hide under a table -- the opera is a Singspiel -- I am not sure for what kind of audience it was specifically written. The characters are truly a mixed bag. The music is sublime in any case --

        • Armerjacquino

          As far as love and peace *always* coming through Mozart’s female characters, I have Elettra, Vitellia and the Queen of the Night here to see you…

          • PATRICK MACK

            Ha. But ultimately all undone with Illia, Pamina, and Servillia left standing holding the ring.

        • La Cieca

          Mozart didn’t write the libretto, which is what we are discussing here.

    • Armerjacquino

      ‘what the hell is sexual genocide?’

      Given that we’re talking about ‘prejudiced’ ‘cultural values’ being ‘taken to the extreme’ I assumed this was a reference to the Holocaust, in which case the ‘sexual genocide’ refers to the LGBT people who died in the camps, while the ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ genocide refers to Jews and the Roma.

      • Ivy Lin

        Ok then I’m saying that it is absolutely rubbish to connect the dots between Die Zauberflote and the Holocasut.

        • La Cieca

          Nobody did that.

  • DerLeiermann

    I’m very excited about Golda Schultz and Angel Blue having their MET opera debuts. I think they’re both wonderful singers and they should do well on the Miozart and Puccini. I believe Angel Blue is rumored to be Bess in the possible future opening night production.
    I have never been to exicited about anything “Die Zauberflöte” , but I’m gonna give the live hd a try given the exciting cast, I have to agree with everything presented in the article, the libretto is problematic, outdated, the story simplistic and just in general loussy.

  • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

    (This is the sort of thing I used to post — just for the purpose of being swatted down by Mrs. John Claggart. Seems sort of futile, but I’ll post it anyway;; maybe someone else will take up the cudgel.) Several of you have talked about love and peace as though they were anything more than artifice to placate the masses. Couldn’t a case be made that war and power are what truly characterize our species?

    • Luvtennis

      Maybe, but we also have the ability to question our own reality. To believe things that are false or unreal because we aspire, hope and dream. And what sets us apart from all other animals -- as far as we know -- is the ability to convince others to believe in those unreal things thereby changing reality

      That’s why dreaming the right dreams and believing in the right lies is so very important.

      So I will keep on dreaming and hoping and lying about the reality of love, equality and hope.

      How about you?

      • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

        I’m a Christian -- I can believe ANYTHING !

        • Luvtennis

          Me too!!!!

  • Dennis Ryan

    Why all this psychoanalysis over a fairy tale? One could make similar comments about almost every plot Grimm or Anderson concocted. Why approach the libretto to “Die Zauberfloete” as if one actually EXPECTED it to make sense? Just let it be the fairy tale that it is.

    • La Cieca

      It’s not a fairy tale. It’s created from scratch and it’s written with at least in part a political agenda.

  • Porgy Amor
  • grimoaldo2

    The libretto of The Magic Flute is imbued with Masonic symbolism from start to finish.
    Anyone who is interested should read Jacques Chailly, a former Mason who explicates it all --
    https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Flute-Unveiled-Esoteric-Symbolism/dp/089281358X
    Freemasonry in Mozart’s time was an attempt to overcome religious division, religious wars had caused terrible death and destruction for hundreds of years. The idea was that Protestant, Catholic, Jews, Muslim, Hindus, Buddhist, were equal and equally valid.
    The Masonic lodge Mozart attended in Vienna admitted women. Shortly after Mozart’s death Freemasonry was banned in the Hapsburg empire but it was legal while he was alive.
    Sarastro has a radical plan. He realises that true strength and wisdom can only come through the union of opposites -- male and female. He knows that neither he, nor the Queen of the Night, representing masculinity and femininity respectively, can bring enlightenment. That can only happen through the creation of an
    ideal pair -- which he struggles , and ultimately succeeds, to create in Tamino and Pamina. The two priests who warn Tamino against women are rebelling against this radical plan of Sarastro.
    Notice that it is specifically stated in the trial scene that the woman is the leader- Pamina says to Tamino “Ich selbsten führe dich”, I myself will lead you, through the trials of fire and water.
    Sarastro knows that neither the female principle, as represented by the Queen of the Night, nor the male principle, as represented by himself, are adequate. They must yield to the reconciliation of male and female as represented by Pamina and Tamino. So Sarastro abdicates and lets “Die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron”-
    Beauty (Pamina) and Wisdom (Tamino), united, have the crown. (last words of the libretto).