As the house lights dimmed and the Met Opera chandeliers rose, conductor Nathalie Stutzmann mounted the Met podium and abruptly elicited the opening chords of the overture to Die Zauberflöte to get Simon McBurney’s darkly magical take on Mozart’s allegorical Singspiel underway. Premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, this inventive production – the first new Met staging in 19 years – joins a long line of memorable Flutes, including those designed by Marc Chagall and David Hockney, and more recently Julie Taymor’s child-friendly rendering which has been seen in 14 seasons since its 2004 premiere.

Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino) and Met Orchestra principal flute Seth Morris
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

For this run, Stutzmann, two weeks after her company debut with Don Giovanni, does double-duty Mozart, leading both operas running simultaneously. She conducted this opera’s magical score with brisk but flexible tempi and the Met Orchestra musicians responded superbly. With the pit elevated almost to the level of the stage, the players were in plain view and often interacted with the singers. Two become major participants in the action, both performing brilliantly – flautist Seth Morris in passages when the flute is central to the story, and pianist Bryan Wagorn, who got the biggest laughs of the night when he arrived on stage “late” to play the glockenspiel.

Brenton Ryan (Monastatos), Thomas Oliemans (Papageno) and Bryan Wagorn (glockenspiel solo)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

McBurney’s modern dress, pared down approach to Mozart’s fable is in many ways the polar opposite of Taymor’s colorful treatment. More clearly aimed at an adult audience, this production sets the story in a dark and sinister domain, where two conflicting factions are at war. With few exceptions, the costumes by Nicky Gillibrand lean toward a palette of black, white and gray, as do Michael Levine’s abstract set designs. In his Met debut, McBurney integrates a barrage of theatrical flourishes – acrobatics, live video projections, aerial ballet, physical comedy, birds impersonated by actors flicking pieces of paper – all to stunningly magical effect. 

Act 2 finale of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

The dark, unadorned stage is dominated by a large, hovering platform, suspended by cables which can be manipulated into various shapes: a platform, a wall, a slide, a boardroom table. A seemingly endless variety of aural and visual experiences, created with humor and ingenuity, are distinctive features of the production. Foley artist Ruth Sullivan – in a booth, visible stage left, that looks like a crowded kitchenette – releases a volley of amplified sound effects (including bird calls and ringtones) in full view of the audience. On stage right, visual artist Blake Haberman, his hands moving in time to the music, adds chalkboard drawings and more complicated visual elements to video projections. 

The top-notch cast, uniformly excellent at interpreting their characters and delivering fine singing, is headed by tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Tamino. Portrayed as a foreigner, looking lost in a strange land, his character gradually becomes more self-assured as the story develops. His singing remained firm and poised throughout, his bright, lively tenor sounding especially dazzling in “Dies Bildnis”.

Erin Morley (Pamina) and Thomas Oliemans (Papageno)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Opposite Brownlee is the silver-toned soprano Erin Morley as Pamina. Poignant and perfect, her more assertive character at the start slowly loses confidence until she becomes desperate over her mother’s cruelty and Tamino’s seeming disinterest. Her suicide aria, “Ach! Ich fühl’s” was heartbreaking, completely drawing the audience into her pain.

In his Met debut, baritone Thomas Oliemans brought seductive singing and fine comic flair to the role of Papageno, offering the most impressive performance of the evening. His highly rhythmic vocal line, perfectly judged diction, and tonal precision were especially notable in his entrance aria, “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”, and his big scene prior to meeting Papagena was a thoroughly engaging showstopper.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and Erin Morley (Pamina)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

As a wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night, soprano Kathryn Lewek took on her treacherous coloratura arias, “O zittre nicht” and “Der Hölle Rache” with intensity and flair. Instead of being cast into darkness at the end of the opera, as is done in most Flute stagings, she is reconciled with Sarastro.

Garbed in a gray business suit and sounding stentorian and commanding, Stephen Milling made an appropriately authoritative Sarastro. His two big arias, “O Isis und Osiris” and “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” were elegantly self-assured throughout, as his flexible bass seamlessly shifted to the lower reaches of their melodies. 

Julian Knopf, Deven Agge, Luka Zylik (Three Boys) and Erin Morley (Pamina)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Smaller roles were also well cast with Brenton Ryan as a conniving Monostatos, Ashley Emerson as a hale and hearty Papagena, and Harold Wilson as a self-important Speaker. Alexandria Shiner, Olivia Vote and Tamara Mumford made a lustful trio of Ladies, while Deven Agge, Julian Knopf and Luka Zylik as the Three Boys came across as eerily emaciated spirits, their light and airy voices effectively conveying old age. The magnificent Met Chorus, trained by Donald Palumbo, were splendid as Sarastro’s faithful following.

It is hard to imagine a more satisfying and magical operatic experience than this intriguing and inventive production, peopled by an outstanding cast and offering exquisite orchestral playing of some of the finest operatic music ever written.