I am happy to report that, after thirteen years, Julie Taymor’s staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute has aged beautifully despite (or maybe because of) lacking all the electronic visual effects that are de rigueur today. Since its première at the Theater auf der Wieden in 1791, Die Zauberflöte has always been supposed to be a true spectacle, not just an allegory on the human quest for deeper meaning or a fairy-tale imbued with elements from Masonic rituals. Instead of “explaining” and “rationalizing” this world imagined by Emanuel Schikaneder and Mozart, Taymor goes the other way, building up the spectacle, piling on top of the Masonic symbols a series of elements belonging to different non-European cultures and epochs – Indonesian puppet theatre, Bunraku, African masks, Chinese opera, Tantric Buddhism – and blending everything into a rich, unruly, whimsical kaleidoscope.

Markus Werba (Papageno) © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Markus Werba (Papageno)
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

An incredible cast of characters populates the scenery of shiny plexiglass and Vegas casino like columns imagined by George Tsypin. Prince Tamino is dressed in Japanese garb. Papageno, the bird-catcher, seems to be, with his beak shaped reversed cap, on his way to become a bird himself even if the boom-box on his shoulder still makes him human. Evil Monostatos looks like a ridiculous bat. In her long gown, the Queen of the Night looks like a moth with wings detached, floating separately as manipulated by half visible puppeteers. Her three servant ladies have their faces painted in black and something similar to African Dan masks floating above their heads. The boy spirits, with white hair and beards, navigate around using birds as their vahanas… All these “real” characters mingle with puppets conceived by Taymor together with Michael Curry: dancing bears, bird-kites, birds on stilts, a dragon with detachable parts moved synchronously by the puppeteers.

There is little doubt that the musical experience is dominated by all this imagery and that spectators can feel, at least at times, truly overwhelmed. One single example: when two guardians at Sarastro’s temple sing a duet, one of those little gems that Mozart is throwing occasionally around, it is almost guaranteed that a viewer’s attention will be captivated by two gratuitously added huge puppet doubles of the guardians, their heads on fire, instead of the exquisite exercise in counterpoint.

Greg Fedderly (Monostatos) and Golda Schultz (Pamina) © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Greg Fedderly (Monostatos) and Golda Schultz (Pamina)
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

It’s a pity, because the music is divine and there are very few conductors around that are able to extract as much essential beauty from a Mozart opera score than James Levine can. If the adopted pace was a tad too brisk during the overture, the intersecting lines, the revealing harmonies, the transitions from tenderness to intense drive were masterfully underlined throughout the performance.

The cast was uniformly good without being truly exceptional. Making her house debut, South-African soprano Golda Schulz displayed a wonderfully creamy voice as Pamina, confident but not too assertive. She is definitely a singer worth following. Lyric tenor Charles Castronovo is capable of lovely phrasing but his timbre is probably better suited to 19th-century repertoire. An extrovert actor, baritone Markus Werba is a veteran performer of Papageno, his singing warm and mellifluous. He conveyed the character’s good nature and childishness but less so the philosophical reticence Papageno shares with Jacques or other Shakespearean jesters.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and Golda Schultz (Pamina) © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and Golda Schultz (Pamina)
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

American soprano Kathryn Lewek was the Queen of the Night. She had a fiery presence alongside the required devilish coloratura in “Der Hölle Rache” but her phrasing was occasionally a bit hasty. Bass Tobias Kehrer sang with dignity, restraint and perfect German diction the Singspiel role of Sarastro, excelling in the aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen”. The three ladies – Wendy Bryn Harmer, Sarah Mesko, and Tamara Mumford – were perfectly coordinated in their endeavors. Greg Fedderly was more humorous than menacing as Monostatos and Ashley Emerson was a quite reserved Papagena.

I have asked repeatedly myself what would have happened if, instead of selecting Robert Lepage to stage Wagner’s Ring, with the soulless, machine-driven results we know, the once-in-a-generation call would have gone Taymor’s way. The chances are that, with her prodigious gift for enhanced storytelling and her ability to conjure stupendous visuals, it would have been something as memorable as this “Magic Flute”. Regretfully, we will never know.