Review: ‘The Magic Flute’ Directs Its Whimsy Toward the Younger Set
The tween-and-under crowd dressed to impress at the Metropolitan Opera House on Friday, streaming through the lobby in ties, bow ties, blazers, sweater vests, sparkly dresses and faux fur coats for the company’s family-friendly version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Several clutched red-velvet seat cushions to see over the pesky adults who would obstruct their sightlines.
The Met’s abridgment of Julie Taymor’s long-running production, a fairy tale of puppets and plexiglass, cuts down the work to 110 minutes and translates it into English. On Friday night, an energetic, extroverted cast gleamed in their parts, even if the 18-year-old production itself looked — and sounded — a little creaky.
Truth be told, Taymor’s staging achieves its finest form in the Met’s digest version, because it doesn’t really have enough ideas to sustain Mozart’s full-length work — a shortcoming that has become more apparent in light of recent productions mounted in New York, London and beyond, such as Barrie Kosky’s or Simon McBurney’s, that approach the opera’s humor, style and feeling with greater sophistication. Still, compared with the Met’s other English-language holiday presentations, like its drearily misshapen “Barber of Seville” or its witty yet abstracted “Hansel and Gretel,” Taymor’s “Flute,” with its serviceable translation by J.D. McClatchy, is a winner with kids.
When Taymor’s full production first appeared at the Met in 2004 — in the wake of “Lion King” mania following her Broadway adaptation of the Disney movie — its joyful effervescence, its menagerie of puppet animals suspended in the air, cut loose any philosophical portentousness that had accumulated to Mozart’s Masonic fable. In that sense, it was innovative. Kosky’s hit production, which is traveling the world, built on that legacy by retaining a whimsical throughline while firming up its execution and reintroducing some depth.
The Met centers its family-friendly staging around the birdbrained birdcatcher Papageno, and the baritone Joshua Hopkins delivered an adorable, handsomely sung performance, his well-built, medium-sized baritone sounding firm in its center, tender around the edges and sweet on top. At one point, he propped Papageno’s bells on his shoulder like a boombox and did the floss.
As the noble prince Tamino, Ben Bliss added a little schmaltz to his elegant tenor to put across the romance of his first aria for the young crowd. The role of his love interest, Pamina, is cruelly curtailed in this version, but the soprano Joélle Harvey made the most of her one magnificent aria, turning it into an alluringly phrased tragedy, her high notes soft, delicate and spinning. Soloman Howard, as Sarastro, showed a rich bass sound with a lively tone that pinged in the Met’s vast hall.
Making her company debut, the coloratura soprano Aleksandra Olczyk did not conquer the outrageous demands of the Queen of the Night. She sang with an impressively full sound that may have hampered her relationship to tempo and pitch. When she found her sweet spot, though, she revealed juicy high Fs and rounded-off staccatos.
The conductor Duncan Ward, also making a Met debut, packed an appealingly forthright sound into the slender frame of Mozart’s music and brought out the score’s duskiness. But he didn’t consistently blend or tighten up the ensemble in service of a single, consonant vision.
In May, the Met will import McBurney’s full-length staging of “The Magic Flute” from Europe, but in a rare example of the company maintaining two different productions for the same opera, Taymor’s frolicsome bears and balletic flamingos will return in future seasons as a holiday treat for the young and young at heart.