by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 25, 2004.
In the fall of 1791, Mozart was a sick man who felt his life slipping away. Still, he was intensely happy. The motive for his joy was “The Magic Flute,” which had opened at the end of September, in Vienna. Representatives of the musical élite were hailing the opera as perhaps the richest of Mozart’s career. Antonio Salieri told his sometime rival that it was “worthy of being played at the greatest festival for the greatest monarchs.” Members of the brotherhood of Masons smiled among themselves as they recognized a kindred spirit at work: the tale of handsome young Tamino, who passes a series of tests set by the mysterious magus Sarastro, was both a parable and a parody of the rituals of Freemasonry. Yet “The Magic Flute” wasn’t a proper opera at all; it was a Singspiel, a hybrid genre akin to musical theatre. The staging aimed to astonish the eyes: one visitor reported seeing “a thousand grotesque forms.” Tickets cost between seven and seventeen kreuzer—about what you’d spend on a round of beers after the show. Mozart had made his imperial art democratic, and he exulted in the many-sidedness of his appeal. “What really makes me happy,” he wrote to his wife, “is the Silent applause!—one can feel how this opera is rising and rising.”
I reread stories of Mozart’s last months just before seeing Julie Taymor’s production of “The Magic Flute,” at the Metropolitan Opera. They stayed with me as Taymor’s deeply dazzling vision took hold. “Silent applause” is an apt phrase for what happens when a listener’s inward experience locks in synch with the experience of several thousand others. It’s the sense of a performance “rising and rising,” as Mozart said; of a jaded, lonely crowd made to grin like kids; of a world gone right. I hung on to the feeling as long as I could.
"The Magic Flute” is half mystery play, half street comedy. Directors usually bend it in whatever direction their sensibility lies. Taymor, who first directed the opera back in 1993, well before she created her Broadway production of “The Lion King,” does not try to resolve its tensions. Instead, she mobilizes every device in her repertoire to render with extreme vivacity whatever Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, throw at her. To the usual Masonic symbology she adds motifs from the Kabbalah, Tantric Buddhism, Bunraku, Indonesian puppet theatre, and so on. The Met stage has never been so alive with movement, so charged with color, so brilliant to the eye. The outward effect is of a shimmering cultural kaleidoscope, with all manner of mystical and folk traditions blending together. Behind the surface lies a melancholy sense that history has never permitted such a synthesis—that Mozart’s theme of love and power united is nothing more than a fever dream. But Taymor allows the Enlightenment fantasy to play out to the end.
Mystery sets the tone before comedy takes over. Forty-three triangles hang in a spooky, asymmetrical pattern on the stage curtain. James Levine’s tempos have been exhilaratingly fleet of late, but I wish he’d lingered longer on the three majestic, light-dark chords that set the music in motion—E-flat major, C minor, E-flat in first inversion. They pose a question that the opera never quite answers. George Tsypin, who created sets for “War and Peace” at the Met two seasons ago, suspends Masonic and Kabbalistic emblems in towering Plexiglas façades, gateways, and columns. That these sets could serve as the backdrop for some very scary Vegas magic show—David Copperfield raising the dead, perhaps—is part of the whimsical appeal of the production, which stops well short of taking itself too seriously.
An incredible variety of figures and creatures swirl through Tsypin’s hieroglyphic castles. Tamino and Sarastro both look like Japanese princes, while Papageno, the bird-catcher well on his way to being a bird himself, has a streetwise look, wearing a green jumpsuit and a sporty beak cap. The Queen of the Night, who tries to lure Tamino from his appointed path, appears with huge moth wings fluttering behind her. Monostatos, Sarastro’s wayward henchman, is a bit of a bat. What might have seemed arbitrary in another production here seems simply right, because Taymor controls each tableau with a painter’s eye. Mark Dendy obtains some of the sharpest dancing I’ve seen on the Met stage; when Papageno immobilizes Monostatos’s would-be tough guys with his magic bells, they become screamingly gay Broadway hoofers. Meanwhile, all manner of puppet beasts, including serpents, bears, and the entire contents of Papageno’s birdcage, stream around the singers. The animals, created with the help of Michael Curry, become co-stars of the piece, not because they impart a “Lion King” glamour but because they move so buoyantly to the music. At times, the entire stage is dancing to Mozart’s time.
Matthew Polenzani, a lyric tenor with a lovely, stately voice and a stiff stage presence, never looked altogether comfortable as Tamino. Dorothea Röschmann, as Pamina, relished the challenge, projecting a dusky gleam in her lower register that I don’t remember hearing in her “Figaro” début last year. L’ubica Vargicová was dangerously hesitant in her opening aria, but she showed fire alongside the required coloratura precision in “Der Hölle Rache” later on. Kwangchul Youn was a noble Sarastro, although he lacked some strength at the bottom of his range. With no fewer than four singers performing in the house for the first time—Anna Christy did well as Papagena—this was a potentially nervous cast, but Levine kept them all on track and maintained a limpid tone from beginning to end.
One singer stood out from the others in his enthusiasm to embody Taymor’s vision: twenty-six-year-old Rodion Pogossov, who until recently had been part of the Met’s Young Artist program. He filled in on short notice for Matthias Goerne as Papageno, having never sung a major role at the Met or anywhere else. He has a mellifluous baritone voice and is a natural, extroverted performer. Basically, he rocks. In place of the cutesy clowning that star baritones often indulge in, he created an antic, athletic, sexy bird-man on the prowl. Perhaps the Old Guard disapproved when Papageno broke into a strutting, arm-swinging hip-hop dance, but it’s about time the Met got some flava.
Two lessons emerge from the soon-to-be-legendary phenomenon of this “Magic Flute.” One is that Taymor has a great future at the house. If I were Joseph Volpe—and, happily, I’m not—I would be stalking her with offers for future projects; at the top of the list would be Wagner’s “Ring.” The Met’s eighteen-year-old “Ring,” the “Walküre” installment of which is now playing in a wildly uneven, weirdly cast performance under Valery Gergiev, has tilted from the grand to the grim. Taymor, with her flair for myth, might produce a “Ring” for the ages.
The other lesson is more wistful. When I got home, I wanted to write, Gene Shalit style, “This Flute’s a hoot! Run, don’t walk!” But there was no point in telling anyone to go anywhere; only a few three-hundred-dollar tickets remained, and these were quickly sold. (There will be five more performances in April; tickets go on sale November 21st.) Whenever the Met stumbles onto something truly wonderful, such as this “Magic Flute,” or “Salome” last season, those in the know snatch up all the tickets before those in the dark can get a taste of what opera can achieve. Such is the enigma of classical music; the better it is, the more inaccessible, until, in its most rarefied form, it hardly exists. Perhaps Mozart took joy in the triumph of “The Magic Flute” because it showed him a way out of that gleaming prison: he could see a real public at last. Then he wrote his Requiem and died.