It was a rare, if not unprecedented, moment Friday at the Metropolitan Opera's premiere of a spectacular staging of Mozart's "Die Zauberflote" (The Magic Flute). At evening's end, director-designer Julie Taymor took a solo curtain-call bow to a tumultuous ovation, then signaled for the rest of her designer team to join her onstage.
It was a rare, if not unprecedented, moment Friday at the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of a spectacular staging of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” (The Magic Flute). At evening’s end, director-designer Julie Taymor took a solo curtain-call bow to a tumultuous ovation, then signaled for the rest of her designer team to join her onstage. Solo calls for the helmer are nearly unheard of at the Met, and for good reason: The attendant boos and catcalls often make it a worse ordeal than the trials of fire, water and air that Tamino and Pamina have to endure in the opera itself. Any who were naysayers in the house Friday kept their opinions to themselves. Taymor has delivered the Met a popular, crowd-tickling “Flute” that’s likely to remain in the repertory for decades.
Before one accuses the Met of going Broadway, remember that it’s Taymor who revolutionized musical-theater staging with her sophisticated arsenal of masks, puppetry and ritualized movement for “The Lion King.”
Her greatest accomplishment with “Flute” is that she uses all these elements to pump up Mozart’s most intimate opera in order to fill the gargantuan Met. Neither of her illustrious predecessors achieved this feat: Marc Chagall’s 1967 “Flute” consisted of a series of pretty, pastel flats and boxes that set much of the action upstage, to disastrous acoustical effect with the Queen of the Night arias, while David Hockney’s version in 1990, with its Hollywood Hills landscape, never quite filled the Met stage, having been borrowed from the smaller San Francisco Opera and already looking worn and a little dirty.
Taymor wisely places most of the action way downstage, and she’s aided aurally by a stentorian Tamino and Pamina, Matthew Polenzani and Dorothea Roschmann, who appear at times to be auditioning for the roles of Lohengrin and Elsa under James Levine’s expansive conducting.
A great designer, Taymor is something less as a director of actors. Since opera singers generally can’t act anyway, it is a perfect, perverse marriage. Taymor does manage to make Rodion Pogossov’s burlesque antics as Papageno a little less annoying than usual.
But no headdress or shoulder pads can disguise the fact that Kwangchul Youn is more baritone than bass in the role of Sarastro, the father who shows his love for Pamina by enslaving her, then setting her and Tamino loose to endure the aforementioned trials.
As Pamina’s bitch mother, the Queen of the Night, L’ubica Vargicova delivered her two coloratura showstoppers with appropriate stridency, if occasionally questionable pitch.
In some respects, this is the disco “Flute.” A decade ago, Taymor delivered a fussy, overproduced “Flying Dutchman” at Los Angeles Opera, in which every aria was accompanied by fire-letting, floating park benches and other extraneous bits of business. With “Flute,” Taymor takes the name Queen of the Night literally, turning her into a flag dancer at the Saint’s annual white party.
Whether this is to your taste depends on how you see “Flute.” Is it a composition that delivers the basic essence and ethos of human existence. or an illogical phantasmagoria of freemason symbolism? Taymor takes the latter approach and leaves the former to Mozart’s music.
Most popular touches are the ballet of bears and Papageno’s boom box, which turns his abductor brutes into a bunch of dancing fairies. Less effective is Papageno’s rap-like finger-snapping, a clear ripoff of Peter Sellars’ famous “Don Giovanni” set in a ghetto slum.
It should be noted that Taymor, unlike Chagall and Hockney, left the set-design duties to someone else, George Tsypin. Opera purists may carp that his rotating Stonehenge of chrome, neon and Plexiglass is more appropriate for dancing to Beyonce than listening to Mozart. But hey, the 1970s are back.