Cher Public

Just add magic

Heretofore I’d avoided the Met’s abridged, English-language holiday presentations but I couldn’t resist The Magic Flute Wednesday evening with Erin Morley and Ben Bliss being menaced by Kathryn Lewek in probably the last go-around for Julie Taymor’s popular production. 

One might expect with an opera house full of kids to experience a few distractions but I was surprised to discover the person who had been methodically kicking the back of my seat throughout was a 70-year-old woman!

Perhaps she was reveling in her second (or maybe third) childhood; I know I was taken back to when I was 11 and received my first opera LP—excerpts from Mozart’s masonic masterpiece conducted by Otto Klemperer. The Met’s show was somewhat similar as what we got were highlights with key numbers were left out and virtually everything else mutilated.

Chinese history reveals a method of execution called “death by a thousand cuts” and time and time again I flinched as a few measures here and a few pages there were sliced out. When I searched the program, I was interested to not find anyone “credited” with this shortened musical edition the Met has been using since 2006.

For those—and I suspect there were many in attendance among Wednesday’s packed house—who had never before heard Die Zauberflöte, the many omissions and excisions probably caused no distress, but for someone who has known the work for virtually his entire life it was an odd and disorienting experience.

And if I were Morley, I’d consider seeking legal counsel. The soprano who was performing her first-ever Pamina became a de facto supporting player in what is normally her opera. To my stupefaction she lost (in their entirety) the touching “Bei Männern” duet with Papageno and the trio with Tamino and Sarastro and the scene of her attempted suicide and rescue by the three Spirits!

I suppose she was grateful to receive at least one benevolent gesture: Pamina’s aria was left untouched. Her achingly lovely “Ach, ich fühl’s” was the indisputable highlight of the performance—deeply felt and floated with exquisite grace despite Harry Bicket’s erratic tempo.

She was well partnered by Bliss as a mellifluous and very young and very tall Tamino. His part was substantially fuller than Morley’s although “Dies Bildnis” lost its middle section and his heroic accompanied recitative before the encounter with the Speaker was left on the cutting room floor.

They made an appealing pair although their supposedly challenging trials scene remains the lamest moment in Taymor’s otherwise busily inventive, crowd-pleasing show.

This season’s premiere was the productions’s 101st performance since its 2004 premiere as well as Nathan Gunn’s 41st Met Papageno, a portrayal seen in both the full-length German version as well as this English one.

His easy command of the stage remains impressive but his jokey take has gotten much more clownish since I saw it 12 years ago alongside Jonas Kaufmann’s Tamino. The voice is still in good shape if a bit smaller and drier than before but I prefer a more serious and seriously sung bird-catcher.

In the rivalry between good and evil parental figures, evil won handily as Lewek’s world-traveling Queen of the Night showered the audience with fearsome if slightly shrieky acuti. I wasn’t initially all that impressed but I realized she had been put at a disadvantage by her placement high and back on George Tsypin’s set.

When she descended to the front of the stage for the second half of “Der Hölle Rache” she sounded much more frighteningly forceful. Her more gracious counterpart Sarastro was resoundingly voiced by Morris Robinson whose commanding presence helped to make up for his less than ideally smooth bass.

Unlike the usual wispy character tenor, Brenton Ryan as Monostatos sounded as if he were ready and able to step in as Tamino. Oddly he got both verses of his aria. As always, Papagena’s crotchety old lady shtick got old quickly but Ashley Emerson proved pertly persuasive when permitted to be her 18-year-old self.

A number of others in the cast were, like Morley, Emerson, Bliss, Gunn and Robinson, graduates of the Met’s Lindemann program while several others were current members including recent Operalia winner Emily D’Angelo making her Met debut as the Second Lady and Ian Koziara whose ludicrously stentorian belting as the First Guard nearly ruined the quartet at the conclusion of the trials scene.

Bicket, best known as a baroque specialist, drew nice playing from the orchestra but otherwise delivered a swift, lightweight and mostly unconvincing reading of Mozart’s kaleidoscopic score. Perhaps he was dismayed that except for its opening chords, the wonderful overture was omitted!

Despite his fleet reading, the 105-minute intermission-less running time felt very long and one questioned the wisdom of making those desired newcomers—whether youngsters or oldsters–endure a performance nearly as long as Elektra!

Perhaps after 15 years of heavy use, the Met feels the Taymor has outlived its usefulness, but I think I will miss its whimsical approach when particularly as its replacement, a production by Robert Lepage (him again?!) which premiered this summer in Québec, looks not dissimilar and even more gimmicky from photos I’ve seen. We shall see when it arrives in a couple of seasons.

Photo: Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera