Taymor’s “Flute” works its seasonal magic at the Met

December 18, 2013
By Eric C. Simpson
Nathan Gunn as Papageno in the Metropolitan Opera's  holiday presentation of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: Marty Sohl

Nathan Gunn as Papageno in the Metropolitan Opera’s holiday presentation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Marty Sohl

For critics and concertgoers alike, mid-December can be one of the bleakest points of the entire concert season. Holiday pops reign at many of the major venues, and one can only hear Handel’s Messiah so many times in one week. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera’s annual holiday presentation remains a bright spot, striking a healthy balance between substance and family-friendly programming.

This year it’s The Magic Flute, in the 2004 production by Julie Taymor. At this remove, none of her stagecraft will any longer strike audiences as groundbreaking, but George Tsypin’s colorfully lit sets and Taymor’s own fanciful costumes (taking some measure of inspiration from traditional Chinese dress) transport the audience to the opera’s mystical, intangible world. Despite its focus on creating immediacy through unfamiliarity, this is one production that never feels lost.

Taymor’s staging is unapologetic in its playful demeanor—swirling puppets, dancing bears, and flamingos on stilts are around every corner, and drew laughs from the many children in attendance on Monday night. Any who doubt whether operatic spectacle and family-friendly theater are compatible should give this Magic Flute another look.

The opera is presented in the English translation by American poet J. D. McClatchy. His is a commendable rendering on the whole—there are spots in which he has trouble keeping up with the music, filling in missing feet here and there with an “I say” or a “you see,” but for the most part the text is crisp and charming. Shortened to just over one hundred minutes, it is an effective and clear distillation of Schikaneder’s somewhat convoluted scenario.

With these performances, Jane Glover becomes just the third woman ever to conduct an opera at the Met (Sarah Caldwell and Simone Young were the others). She led a disciplined and straightforward account of the score, with tight ensemble throughout. Glover was at her best when the music was at its most lively (often in Papageno-related sections), drawing sparkle and humor out of the orchestra. What was missing here and there was warmth and size—the grand procession that accompanies Sarastro’s first entrance, in particular, could have used more pomp.

Alek Shrader was impressive as the earnest young prince Tamino, singing with brightness and focused tone. The sweet-voiced Heidi Stober played opposite him as Pamina, warm in her middle range and glittering on top. Her intimate aria (“Now My Heart Is Filled with Sadness” in McClatchy’s translation) was one of the vocal highlights of the evening, her delicate phrasing giving voice to her wounded love. While both gave affecting performances dramatically, they never quite jelled as a romantic duo.

Nathan Gunn has made his thoroughly affable Papageno something of a specialty, and he stole the show once again on Monday. He displayed remarkable chemistry with everyone he encountered, bringing his fellow actors to life whenever he took the stage. His comic timing was spot-on, and he relished every opportunity to clown around, notably with a gleeful cry of “Ooh! A lobster!” as he did battle with his floating feast in the second act.

There was pathos, too, hidden underneath, as there is with most good clowning. His desire for companionship was evident in his spoken dialogue, and he pined dreamily in his second-act aria, here rendered as “A Cuddly Wife or Sweetheart.” And then, of course, there is his smooth, resonant voice, which was in top form on Monday. His is not the largest baritone on the Met’s roster, but he had no trouble being heard, bringing full-bodied amber tone to bear.

Albina Shagimuratova sang the treacherous and treacherously difficult Queen of the Night. She had appropriate ring in her upper register, and was light enough in her chest that her transitions were not apparent. She floated remarkably in her first aria, but the more famous—and more explosive—aria in the second act was just a touch off. Though she picked out most of her individual jumps accurately, the whole drifted slightly flat. Her high notes rang crystal-clear, but didn’t pop quite enough, all of them slightly held.

Eric Owens was formidable as the sorcerer Sarastro, his rich, woody sound suggesting nobility and wisdom. John Easterlin was a comically crude Monostatos, but difficult to hear. The bass-baritone Shenyang was imposing and rich-toned as the Speaker of the temple, and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s flute soli were consistently enchanting.

The Magic Flute runs through January 4. metoperafamily.org

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