Metropolitan Opera – Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte, K620 [Singspiel in two acts to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder; sung in German with English Met Titles by J. D. McClatchy]

Tamino – Eric Cutler
First Lady – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Second Lady – Maria Zifchak
Third Lady – Wendy White
Papageno – Stéphane Degout
Queen of the Night – Anna-Kristina Kaappola
First Slave – Irwin Reese
Second Slave – Dennis Williams
Third Slave – Roger Crouthamel
Monostatos – Dietmar Kerschbaum
Pamina – Diana Damrau
First Spirit – Jakob Taylor
Second Spirit – Luke Scott Murray
Third Spirit – Jacob A. Wade
Speaker – Eike Wilm Schulte
Sarastro – Reinhard Hagen
First Priest – James Courtney
Second Priest – Bernard Fitch
Papagena – Monica Yunus
First Guard – Michael Myers
Second Guard – Keith Miller

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Kirill Petrenko

Julie Taymor – Production
George Tsypin – Set design
Julie Taymor – Costume design
Donald Holder – Lighting design
Julie Taymor and Michael Curry – Puppet design
Mark Dendy – Choreographer
David Kneuss – Stage director

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 6 November, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Since Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” premiered three years ago, Metropolitan Opera audiences have delighted in the spectacular puppetry and visual effects that pervade the performance and add a new layer of fantasy to what is an inherently fantastic opera. The emphasis in this production is on those elements rather than on evocation of any particular place, culture or philosophy – whether Egyptian, Masonic or otherwise – or on its scenic design, the dominant element of the two preceding Met productions, designed by David Hockney (1991) and Marc Chagall (1967).

For this season, the Met has assembled a strong cast, with an unusual twist: soprano Diana Damrau, who sings Pamina for most of the run, will take on the role of the Queen of the Night in the final two performances – which, she says, will be for the final time in her career. Three singers are making their Met debuts in this production: soprano Anna-Kristina Kaappola as the Queen of the Night; tenor Joseph Kaiser, who will replace Eric Cutler as Tamino midway through the run; and soprano Genia Kühmeier, who will sing Pamina opposite Damrau’s Queen on November 20 and 24.

The dominant feature of Taymor’s production is the puppetry, created by her in conjunction with Michael Curry, which afforded many delightful moments, although occasionally distracting from the music and storyline of the opera. Most effective were representations of plot elements – for example: the fire-breathing dragon in the opening scene, which consisted of ten segments carried by black-clad puppeteers; Papageno’s birds and magical comestibles; and a gigantic skeletal bird that carried figures representing the three boys (billed as “Spirits” in the programme) high above the stage. Perhaps the most enjoyable of all were the dancing bears – huge fabric figures on flexible poles manipulated by puppeteers – that appeared as Tamino played the magic flute after learning from the priests that Pamina was alive. The libretto calls for Sarastro to enter in a triumphal chariot drawn by six lions, but Taymor passed up the opportunity to animate those beasts, settling instead for a trolley cart with two transparent lions resembling ice sculptures. Perhaps all of her available lion puppetry had been left downtown at “The Lion King”.

When puppets or other visual effects were gratuitously injected into a scene without advancing the story line, however, they sometimes proved a distraction. The Queen of the Night’s silvery costume was augmented by triangular, wing-like panels that puppeteers kept in almost constant motion during her first act aria ‘Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren’, drawing attention away from one of the most vocally exciting moments in the opera. (Fortunately, the wing-bearing puppeteers departed just before her second act aria, ‘Der Hölle Rache’, leaving her in a deep red gown adorned with two tall black panels rising behind her.) Papageno’s aria ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ was pointlessly accompanied by dancers costumed as tall, birdlike creatures, two on stilts and the rest en pointe. A more felicitous bit of Mark Dendy’s choreography was the transformation of Monostatos and his cohort of slaves from vicious to precious as Papageno played the magic bells to allow him and Pamina to escape.

George Tsypin’s rotating set, a cubic array of large, transparent squares with openings in geometrical shapes, hinted at, but did not belabour, the Masonic underpinnings of the opera. Unfortunately, several set changes, although hidden from view behind a scrim or curtain, rumbled so loudly as to interfere with the performers out front. This happened during Tamino’s dialogue with the offstage voices of the priests (as the set was being prepared for the dancing bears scene), and again behind Sarastro’s aria, ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’, and Papageno’s ensuing dialogue with Tamino and his first encounter with Papagena in the form of an old woman. Donald Holder’s clever lighting helped in transforming the set into a variety of settings and provided atmosphere at dramatic moments, such as the flashes of lightning that heralded the Queen of the Night’s entrances. Lighting effects were also used as Tamino and Pamina passed the tests of fire and water.

Taymor’s costume designs were generally attractive but not uniformly effective. Best of all was Papageno’s green, tight-fitting costume that emphasised his earthiness and close connection to the world of nature. Also striking was Sarastro, draped in concentric semicircles of gold fabric that contrasted with the stark diagonal lines of the tilted, square-shaped costumes of the chorus, who wore black and white initially but changed into gold and white costumes for the opera’s final, sun-bathed scene. The all-black costumes of the three ladies were topped with white masks for faces that could be removed and manipulated either by the singers or by puppeteers to create very entertaining effects. Less effective were the all-white costumes of the three boys, who wore floor-length white beards.

Tamino had white-face makeup, long black hair, a vaguely oriental costume and an aloof manner that quite appropriately gave him the air of a prince from a distant land, contrasting sharply with the earthy Papageno. Pamina’s costume, however, although quite eye-catching, was more appropriate for a peasant lass than a princess destined to marry Tamino. Monostatos’s amusing costume had a bat-like cape that he often drew back to reveal rolls of (artificial) flesh around his midriff, but he was not made up as a Moor. The Met Titles flew by before I was able to notice whether the libretto’s references to his skin colour had been retained, omitted, altered or mistranslated. The use of rhymed titles – apparently the text by J. D. McClatchy that the Met used last season in an abbreviated English language version of the opera – interfered with their effectiveness in translating the often rapid-fire spoken dialogue, a function quite different from providing a text to be sung or read as poetry.

Kirill Petrenko led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a fine performance of Mozart’s score, from a lively rendition of the overture to the stirring final cadence. The orchestra and chorus maintained a perfect balance with the singers, and the Russian maestro exhibited fine attention to detail, with tempos that kept the action moving throughout the opera.

French baritone Stéphane Degout’s Papageno was a delight both vocally and comedically. He captured just the right feeling of folk-like earthiness in his singing, and his portrayal of the bird-catcher’s simple outlook on life was completely believable. His fruitless struggles to comply with the demands of the Three Ladies and later of Sarastro’s minions were consistently humorous. Wendy Bryn Harmer, Maria Zifchak and Wendy White made a perfect trio of Ladies, singing beautifully and clearly in all of their ensembles.

Diana Damrau continues to shine in her third season at the Met, following her debut in 2005 as Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos” and appearances last season as Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and as Aithra in “Die Ägyptische Helena”. The German soprano gave a radiant performance as Pamina, combining with Degout in a beautifully sung duet, ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ and later bravely resolving to tell the truth (‘Die Wahrheit’) to the then-dreaded Sarastro. Her ‘Ach, ich Fühl’s’ in the second act was very dark and dramatic in tone, perfectly matching the text, and was enhanced by excellent orchestral playing, especially from the bassoon and violins. The tenderness of her “Tamino mein” conveyed perfectly her sense of relief from pain and dread.

Eric Cutler sang Tamino with a full, rich and pleasing tone. In his initial aria, ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’, which really sets the main plot line into motion, he showed a bit of the vocal edginess that makes the tenor voice so exciting, and also sang the softer passages quite beautifully. Much of Tamino’s singing comes in duets and ensembles, and Cutler was outstanding as he combined with the Ladies, Sarastro, Papageno and, of course, Damrau’s Pamina. Unfortunately, the makeup, costume and stiff stage direction that established Tamino’s noble status also limited Cutler’s ability to endear himself to the audience as a romantic hero.

In her debut role as the Queen of the Night, Finnish soprano Anna-Kristina Kaappola was quite impressive, tossing off with apparent ease the coloratura passages in ‘Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren’ right up to the high F’s. Her ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was breathtakingly dramatic, although one or two of the high F’s there may have fallen a tad flat. German bass Reinhard Hagen made an imposing Sarastro, singing the role with authority and lyricism. One could have wished for a bit more boom to his bass in the lower end of his range, however. Dietmar Kerschbaum was a standout as Monostatos, contributing mightily to the opera’s comedic side and also more than holding his own vocally.

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