With singers more brilliant than Papageno’s colorful birds, a gorgeous array of sets, puppetry and costumes and a light-hearted spirit of festivity and frolic, the Metropolitan Opera’s family-friendly The Magic Flute is – as this Papageno might declare – an “abso-freaking-lutely” delight.

Joshua Hopkins (Papageno) and Joélle Harvey (Pamina) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Joshua Hopkins (Papageno) and Joélle Harvey (Pamina)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Julie Taymor’s scaled-down production of Mozart’s last opera captures the energy and wacky charm of this Masonic-inspired phantasmagoria, a carnival of non-stop antics set to some of the most heavenly sounds to emerge from the Western tradition, or anywhere. The Met first staged this English-language version of Flute in 2004 and it has become a holiday season favorite.

Delicately nipped and tucked from its original three-plus-hour length to a mere hour and three quarters (with no intermission), the Met production sparkles from the slaying of the serpent in Act 1 to the long-awaited marriage of Tamino and Pamina in the grand hall of the Brotherhood at the opera’s end, when “the forces of darkness are vanquished”.

While the abridged Flute may still be a bit long and hard to follow for younger children, it is a wonderful way to introduce anyone with a child’s imagination and spirit to the magic of opera, especially when supported by other media, such as the outstanding cartoon synopsis, tailored to this particular production, in the accompanying Playbill.

David Portillo (Tamino) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
David Portillo (Tamino)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Stellar performances were delivered by all the players. Joshua Hopkins, baritone, provided a modern take on Papageno. His singing is pure perfection and his clownish capers lit up the stage. Hopkins is a brilliant physical comedian as well as master of the singer’s art. I wonder what librettist Emanuel Schikaneder would have thought of some of the transitions of German words to slangy English. To this listener and the audience in general, the translation was fresh, clever and delightful.

David Portillo’s lyrical tenor voice as Tamino was a joy to hear. His princely bearing and cool head in the face of some of the most bizarre goings-on in the opera repertoire kept the work grounded and focused on the high ideals that hold the story together. The princess Pamina, Tamino’s beloved, is beguilingly played by soprano Joélle Harvey, with some clear upper tones in the aria “O my heart”, that gleam like liquid gold.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

But if for no other reason, listeners have flocked for more than two centuries to this opera to hear one aria: “Der Hölle Rache” (The Vengeance of Hell). Listeners’ expectations for this aria are unreasonably high, but soprano Kathryn Lewek met and quite possibly exceeded all of them. In ghastly white cake makeup, scarlet sheaths of fabric fanning out from her body like butterfly wings, her physical presence alone was awe-inspiring. She not only sang this difficult aria to virtuosic perfection, but did so in a way that kept it in sync with the overall lightness of the production.

Other tremendous performances were noted by bass Morris Robinson, a stabilizing presence as the sage Sarastro and, at the other end of the spectrum, Rodell Rosel, tenor, as the vaudevillian comic villain Monostatos. The three child spirits, often hovering above the stage, were quite remarkable. They looked as though they had been picked up by their spiky hair, dipped in white paint and left out to dry, an effect that was exactly right for their eerie but appealing presence.

Morris Robinson (Sarastro) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Morris Robinson (Sarastro)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Luxuriously modern, George Tsypin’s set designs embodied the unique spirit of each act, with a backdrop of Masonic icons in place through much of the production. The puppets – birds, serpents, bears, wolves – manipulated via poles held by black-clad puppeteers, could not have been more lifelike yet infused with other-worldly grace. Costume design by producer Taymor, who, with Michael Curry, also designed the puppets, created a sense of wonder and unity.

In the final analysis, indispensable to the success of this production is the sensitivity and musical leadership of conductor Lothar Koenigs. The elegant Met orchestra complemented singing, acting, set design, puppets, lighting by Donald Holder and imaginative choreography by Mark Dendy in a unified and glorious production whose proportions and craft the Masons themselves would applaud.

*****