Nobody brings out the magic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote better than James Levine, and with a stellar cast under his baton the Met Opera’s revival of Julie Taymor’s enchanting staging sparkles like vintage champagne.
With the South African soprano Golda Schultz making a dazzling debut as Pamina opposite the first-rate hometown New York tenor Charles Castronovo as Tamino and the Austrian baritone Markus Werba delivering a splendid Papageno, this is a superb opera outing that should not be missed.
The entire cast, which includes Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night, a signature role the Connecticut soprano has sung in opera houses around the world, the excellent German bass Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, and a host of fine support from the Three Ladies and the Three Spirits and others join to make this revival one of the best Zauberflotes in years.
It is a special treat the Met will make available to opera fans around the world on Saturday, Oct. 14, when the matinee performance will be simulcast to some 2,000 theaters in 70 countries as part of the company’s Live in HD series.
It is hard to believe that Taymor’s fabulous production premiered 13 years ago. It is still as entrancing as when it first wowed Met audiences in 2004, also with Levine conducting, and shows no sign of aging.
A large part of the charm is due to Taymor’s imaginative use of puppets, which she designed with Michael Curry, and the more than a dozen puppeteers, unobtrusive to the flow of music or action, fully deserved their ovations at the curtain call.
If Levine’s magic begins by leading the great Met Orchestra in a galloping Overture, Taymor’s first rabbit out of the hat is actually a giant snake that slithers around the stage stalking Tamino as soon as the curtain rises. The scaly serpent is the first of the many puppets and could double as a dragon in a Chinese New Year’s parade on Mott Street.
No sooner is the serpent dispatched than Papageno enters with a flock of birds fluttering around him like an aviary, shortly to be followed by a giant raptor flying slowly across the stage bearing the Three Spirits, a really big bird that looks like it should be in the Museum of Natural History rather than the Metropolitan Opera.
In due course, the audience is treated to a group of dancing bears, pirouetting flamingos and peacocks, and a floating banquet with plates of spaghetti, a drumstick, a link of sausages, and an ice cream cone swirling in the air.
Mozart wrote Die Zauberflote with his friend and fellow Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder in the last months of his life. It was Mozart’s final opera with only his Requiem to come before he died at the age of 35. It was written in the style of singspiel in which the music is interspersed with spoken dialogue.
The story is mainly a humorous fairy tale and fantasy mixed into a love quest that detours into an initiation into a secret fraternity. Surprisingly it all hangs together, and the brilliant English subtitling, mostly in rhyming couplets, by the poet J.D. McClatchy brings out all the comedy and gets the laughs that otherwise would be lost in the German.
Masonic themes run throughout the opera and Taymor’s sets for the Met make the most of them. The backdrop is covered with Masonic symbols like compasses and T-squares and others that resemble Egyptian hieroglyphics (the opera was originally set in Egypt). The huge Plexiglas revolving sets are fashioned into geometric patterns.
But as always with Mozart, it is the music that most captivates and from the opening chords of the Overture, Levine conducts a sterling reading of the score. Castronovo has a strong tenor that shone in Tamino’s opening aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon” and the second-act “Eine schrekliche Nacht.”
Schultz was a tender and touching Pamina and one hopes to see more of her at the Met. She has a rich and warm soprano that flows smoothly into the upper register and her “Ach, ich fuhl’s” aria was simply lovely. The opera’s biggest vocal fireworks of course belong to the Queen of the Night and Lewek’s “Der Holle Rache” was spectacular.
Werba’s Papageno gets the lion’s share of the laughs and his assured baritone set the standard in his opening “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” aria. As Sarastro, Kehrer delivered a solemn and stentorian “O Isis und Osiris.”
Greg Fedderly, dressed as a fat bat, was a lecherous Monostatos, Christian Van Horn was earnest as Speaker, and Ashley Emerson was a coy Papagena. From the pit, the flutist Chelsea Knox played a beautiful solo accompaniment.