On Simon McBurney’s production of Mozart’s opera at the Met.
It’s Mozart Month at the Metropolitan Opera. On the 5th, there was the premiere of a new production of Don Giovanni. (For this critic’s review, go here.) And on Friday, the 19th, there was the premiere of a new production of The Magic Flute. The production is in the hands of Simon McBurney, the English director.
In a review, productions often have pride of place—this goes double, or triple, for new ones. Singing and playing are afterthoughts. With that in mind, let’s make them forethoughts.
No one is more important than the conductor—and, as in Don Giovanni, she was Nathalie Stutzmann, the Frenchwoman. She is an astonishing musician: both a singer (a contralto) and a conductor. She has been known to “sing-conduct,” i.e., sing and conduct at the same time. Pianists as conductors are rather common; a singer-conductor is rare.
On Friday night, she led a respectable performance of The Magic Flute. Playing, often, could have been crisper. This began with the overture. Speaking of beginnings: Act II began with a wretched entrance. Also, the music here should have been far warmer, evincing a bit of the holy.
An orchestra’s principal flute is not unimportant in a Magic Flute. One of the Met’s two principals is Seth Morris, who did some of his playing onstage. He made a fine flutist and cast member, both. Playing the glockenspiel was Bryan Wagorn, an assistant conductor at the Met. Toward the end of the show, he was elbowed aside by the cast’s Papageno, who, according to a bio, is a pianist to boot.
He is Thomas Oliemans, a Dutch baritone. Friday night was his Met debut. It was an impressive debut. Oliemans sang beautifully and intelligently, and he joyfully, skillfully, conveyed the character of Papageno. Singers sometimes make Papageno too clownish. Oliemans was just right.
Let me note, too, that German out of his mouth was natural (more than out of others’).
Tamino and Pamina were two Americans, reliable for their lyricism: Lawrence Brownlee and Erin Morley. Lyricism, they provided. Brownlee has the gift of seamlessness. Morley has the gift of endearingness. They both have other gifts as well, of course.
Sarastro was Stephen Milling, a Danish bass, who has been at this a long time. He projected authority. Kathryn Lewek, an American soprano, is an experienced Queen of the Night. Notable about her in this performance was her intonation—she sang in tune (and what tunes Mozart gives her—and everybody else).
Harold Wilson was the Speaker. Somewhat confusingly, this role is a singing one. Wilson, an American bass, made the most of it, singing elegantly and sturdily. Monostatos is the villain of this piece, and it can be a thankless role. Brenton Ryan, a tenor from Sedalia, Mo., handled it ably—not least with fresh singing.
And I will give you a footnote: When it came time to bow, Ryan sprinted out onto the stage, like a trackster. Someone should put a stopwatch on him. We may have a record here.
I wish to pay tribute to Fred Kirshnit, my late friend and colleague—a singular critic, a singular man. I will do it in a funny way (I hope).
Once, he saw a Carmen, which he thoroughly disliked. He even wanted to knock the children’s chorus, in his review. His wife, Leslie Johnson, said, “Oh, no, Fred. Not the children.” I can’t remember what the outcome was.
The Magic Flute has Three Boys, and, on Friday night, they were of course adequate and lovable. But someone should have told them to sing out—to be more assertive, for example, in their rebuke of Papageno.
(How was that, Fred?)
The new production by Simon McBurney replaces that of Julie Taymor from 2004. My Googling skills don’t lead me to my review of the Taymor premiere. But I have found something from 2006. Here is how I started:
On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera began another run of Julie Taymor’s famed 2004 production of “The Magic Flute.”
Famed already? After just two years? It was, actually. Anyway, I continued,
Some people find her treatment of Mozart’s opera too busy, too distracting—too dazzling, in a way. Others find it just about the most striking and enchanting thing they have ever seen in a theater. I’m in the latter camp.
I sure was. The McBurney production is a different kettle of fish—but a good and worthy kettle in its own way.
The opera begins before you know it. You are caught unawares. The house lights are still on; the Met’s chandeliers have not yet risen. Yet the conductor, appearing out of nowhere, has given the downbeat.
While the orchestra is playing the overture, there is video to watch. It is not uninteresting video. But perhaps Mozart’s overture should be left unmolested, unaccompanied—undistracted from. It is such a great piece, all by itself. And it introduces, and summarizes, the opera.
On either side of the stage, there is a station. A kind of booth, or workshop. In one, a man does video projection (I believe). In the other, a woman does sound effects.
Throughout the show, there are black-clad people carrying white pieces of paper, representing birds.
Characters are dressed in T-shirts, combat fatigues, business suits . . . The Queen of the Night is an old lady who uses either a cane or a wheelchair. Papageno lugs around a ladder, and he wears a jacket resembling the Ukrainian flag. Characters are sometimes in the audience, in the aisles, running and otherwise carrying on.
At one point, Papageno’s music—the little five-note ascending scale—comes out of a cellphone. At another point, we hear the opening of “New York, New York.” In the spoken dialogue, there is a Godfather allusion. Also, a cell number is given out: incorporating Mozart’s birth year and death year (1756 and 1791).
This is a clever production. Does it steal the show? That’s what I often ask, of a production: Does it steal the show from the score, the libretto, the story? This one comes close, I think, but is ultimately not guilty.
Here is another question I ask, about a Magic Flute production, specifically: What would Mozart and Schikaneder—the librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder—think? After some initial puzzlement, and with a few grumbles, they would like this one, I wager. I believe they would think it accorded with the spirit and purpose of the show.
It is a great work, The Magic Flute (in case anyone forgot). Years ago, I had the privilege of sitting at lunch with Andrew Porter, the venerable musicologist and critic. I said, sheepishly, “I know this is a dumb question, but do you have a favorite opera?” Almost before I could get the words out of my mouth, he said, “The Magic Flute.”
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