Julie Taymor's Magic
"The Magic Flute."
Score by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder.
English translation by J. D. McClatchy.
Direction and costumes by Julie Taymor.
Conductor James Levine.
At Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, NYC.
Dec. 31; Jan. 4, 6, 8, 12; - Feb. 21, 24; March 2, 8, 2007. $275-15.
Some performances are full-text in German; some are the 100-minute abridgement in English.
For tickets and information: http://www.metoperafamily.org or 212-362-6000.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
Julie Taymor's staging and direction of "The Magic Flute" ("Die Zauberflote") is exquisitely beautiful -- as if she had discovered how to translate Mozart's phrases into movement, shape and lighting. Following the lead of innovators like Peter Sellars in his contemporary staging of Mozart's Da Ponte trio, Taymor insists that opera too is theatre. In her hands, the collaborative arts – costumes, set, choreography, acting – interpret and enhance the power of score and libretto.
"The Magic Flute" was Mozart's next-to-last opera, or more exactly a "Singspeil" (a form of popular entertainment that combined dialogue and song, a cousin of musical theatre). He wrote it with fellow-Mason Emanuel Schikaneder, a jack-of-many trades who enjoyed a reputation as a libertine. With it Mozart was again pushing the conventions, filling the stage with both whimsical creatures and high priests, shifting from the enigmatic to the sensual by uniting the high romance of Prince Tamino with the comical antics of the hedonistic Papageno, who becomes his sidekick. It was an opera written for the people, not the court, and tickets in Fall 1791 were deliberately priced low to make the opera more accessible.
The narrative thread is boy-gets-girl: Tamino (the appealing Gregory Turay) wins the princess Pamina (Lyubov Petrova, whose voice more than compensated for her stiff acting) and the more earthly Papageno (a playful Aaron St. Clair Nicholson) wins Papagena (Jennifer Aylmer) in the beautiful duet when they sing each other's names.
The plot is complicated by the rivalry between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, the High Priest, over the lovers and by Tamino's initiation ritual – when he must pass a series of tests to win Pamina. Since he is no superhero, magical creatures come to his aid and, after he is granted the magic flute, obey his commands.
Few productions match the seductive power of the opening scene as we catch our first glimpse of the large Plexiglas structure that will alter shape and color, transform the light into form and mood, and define our magical journey through sight and sound as much as Tamino's. George Tsypin (set) and Donald Holder (lighting) create a dreamscape, decorated (like Taymor's costumes) with bold, enigmatic hieroglyphs. The translucent components on turntables open to cave like circles within squares where performers vanish or appear, tall Doric columns topped by cryptic crystal shapes (pyramid, magic ball), a labyrinth, a splendid temple, a sleeping chambers, a midnight garden of luminescent roses, a regal stage, a forest – all touched with enchantment and mystery. The libretto identifies Egypt as the setting, an exotic landscape, the birthplace of the Masonic brotherhood, not the familiar tour stop Egypt has become today.
Julie Taymor, who earned 1998 Tony and Drama Desk awards for directing and costuming the long-running "The Lion King" at the New Amsterdam Theatre, directed her first "Magic Flute" in 1993. "The Magic Flute" has echoes of her 1986 staging of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and the brilliant, Greek-inspired masking techniques she used in staging Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex." But she takes "The Magic Flute" far beyond her past work and creates a new vision for it, one that Mozart would probably have embraced.
Papageno, the itinerant bird catcher, establishes the visual metaphor. We meet him surrounded by flying bird puppets (with black-clad puppeteers, as in bunraku, working the rods). His own green-orange (parrot-like) outfit is decorated with embroidered ropes. He is a caged spirit, a captive to carnal passion. In one interlude, he is seduced into gluttony by a floating feast, but in a more telling encounter, perhaps a dream, he is surrounded by tall, slim comical bird-women who dance on toe (Mark Dendy, choreography) and whose feminine attributes are much exaggerated. He wants them all, so his test is fidelity -- to an old crone bent double with age. On the point of despair and suicide, spirits remind him of his magical bells, which summon the crone and transform her into the nubile Papagena.
Monostatos (William Ferguson), the inept villain who tries to kidnap Pamina, can be seen as a parodic bat, but he reminded me of Pengy from "Batman." He's obscene – he flashes Pamina by opening his cape -- ungainly, and folds-of-fat pudgy, but he is served by some half-naked, macho henchmen who seem a little dangerous. They are quickly routed, but it's an interesting moment.
The Queen of Night (Mari Moriya, whose superb soprano could bewitch bobcats) is pure archetype, a silvery monarch in Japanese-inspired make-up with six slowly moving giant wings (operated by puppeteers in black) behind her. She reappears later in scarlet and black, now evil but even more mesmerizing. Her "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("Vengeance of Hell stirs within my heart"), stopped the show.
Three pale white spirit of the air with long beards (played first by tiny puppets, then by young boys) fly in and out of the action, and the Queen has three spiritual attendants, who slay the dragon (a marvelous gray multijointed paper puppet with an electric eye) after Tamino faints. Taymor has been experimenting with the attendants' costumes for over a decade. Like the principles in her "Oedipus Rex," their majestic height is created by white masks worn atop their heads while their faces are blacked out with make-up. Like Ariel in Taymor's "Tempest," the performers (in navy dresses with silver embroidery) holding the masks in their white-gloved hands become graceful disembodied spirits, their beautiful voices arising from the clear air. Pure magic!
The crowning image of the bird metaphor is the flues of fire and then water that lift and challenge the two lovers as they meet their final tests. The scene is less effective than most – the water and fire less believable even in an enchanted kingdom, but toward the end of the opera, Taymor has de-emphasized her visuals perhaps to let the beauty of the music and voices dominate and close the performance.
The bird metaphor integrates the opera while the multicultural visuals open up new vision for the initiation. The Masons – Mozart and librettist Schikaneder belonged to the same lodge as Hayden – are an international organization, and the staging underscores a united world. It's obvious that Taymor has been deeply influenced by Asian drama, movement and masks, and Prince Tamino in his multicolor garments looks like the son of an Eastern potentate. The actors playing Pamina and Papageno as well as their costumes are European-based. Sarastro, the High Priest, is sung by Morris Robinson, a black performer wearing an ashy make-up look that is familiar from photographs and films of African ceremonies. The hieroglyphics are borrowed from several cultures.
The current production premiered in 2004 and has been on the Met calendar for the past two years. This season there are two versions: a new 100-minute abridgement in English and the three-hour German-language production, which oddly enough is even more impressive in Taymor's hands. Both share the same sets and costumes. The English version, with no intermission, is being marketed as family opera by Peter Gelb, the Managing Director of the Metropolitan Opera, and on Dec. 31 (the adaptation reviewed here) the orchestra seats were filled with families. At the same time, in 100 movie theatres across the nation, other families enjoyed a telecast of the live production. Many of the theatres had sold-out houses.
Seasoned opera fans are at ease with a dissonance between sound and sight. With negligible distractions from the other senses, they have felt free to breath in the arias and duets, to open themselves to the purely emotive, but the younger generations are more comfortable with the complement of sight and sound. Opera, to grow, is moving toward the theatrical. Taymor and other like-minded colleagues are filling a gap. In Sept., for Puccini's ''Madama Butterfly'' at the Metropolitan Opera, Anthony Minghella included a bunraku boy puppet. Basil Twist has created a 12-foot witch for Humperdinck's ''Hansel and Gretel'' at the Houston Grand Opera.
I grew up in a working class home. My parents would not allow me to listen to what they called funeral music, including Mozart. But the scores to my Saturday morning cartoons were written by Tchaikovsky, Prokovieff, and maybe even Brahms.
I began my music collection when I moved out. The visuals were my doorway to the music – and they weren't a quarter as imaginative as the wonders Julie Taymor has created for the Metropolitan Opera.