Die Zauberflöte

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
(2007)

The Met has launched a fascinating experiment in an attempt to reach out into the community and introduce a new generation to opera. This is greatly to be commended and as an insidious attempt to persuade youngsters to get addicted to a product, is far more acceptable than fast food or cigarettes.

In addition to this full-length German production of Die Zauberflöte, the Met is running a cut-down 90 minute English language version, sold as "The Magic Flute", in the afternoons, also shown to young audiences in selected cinemas across the country.

One imagines that grandparents are falling over themselves to take advantage of a little bit of quality time with the kids and a chance to indoctrinate them with an injection of high-ish culture.

It would be interesting to know whether the choice of director was initially geared towards the children or adults. As a means of alluring youngsters, the selection of Julie Taymor, who is famed for her production of The Lion King, still playing on Broadway and in London, was a masterstroke.

They will find this bold, brash version of Mozart as accessible as opera can be. They may also be helped by the regular un-operatic breaks for normal narrative speech.

However, the performance under review is the adult, evening incarnation, where the well-dressed might be expected to demand a more serious approach for their hard-earned bucks

The music, on this occasion conducted by Scott Bergeson standing in for James Levine, is delightful with some great high points. The ladies in particular excel, with sopranos Isabel Bayrakdarian and Cornelia Götz outstanding in different ways.

Miss Bayrakdarian plays the Princess Pamina, kidnapped by the evil Sarastro, well sung by René Papp and his ten times worse sidekick, Volker Vogel's Monostatos, looking like everyone's worst nightmare, rotund and leering. Whenever Pamina opens her mouth, it is like a bird singing and the audience holds its breath.

Miss Götz as the Princess's mother, The Queen of the Night, has the dreamy coloratura moments for which the opera is famed and delivers them beautifully.

The pair of men who try to save the princess are Tamino (tenor Christopher Strehl) and his rather backward sidekick, Papageno. While the first is as handsome as they come and would sing his way into the heart of any princess, Papageno is a rather backward bird catcher. He dreams of finding his Papagena and fears that he has discovered her in an archetypally ugly hag, who miraculously turns out to be a beauty at the death. This part gives considerable comic scope to Rodion Pogossov and he rises to the occasion, proving that he can act as well as sing.

To get to the happy ending, our adventurers need to fulfil a series of tasks so that the bad Queen is beaten off and Sarastro satisfied. That is the core of the evening and allows set designer George Tsypin, who works closely with his lighting colleague Donald Holder, to show his masterpiece.

Julie Taymor has elected to use a comic, cartoon-like imagery, possibly influenced by mid-Twentieth Century sci-fi movies such as Buck Rogers.

Her colour scheme is garish as she tries for the elemental. The centrepiece is a quartet of gigantic, adaptable Perspex screens, which act as mini stages and also backdrops. These each contain a symmetrical shape, echoed in the brightly-coloured costumes, designed by Miss Taymor. Behind all of this are images that look as if they have come from a book of pagan symbols.

To please the children (and adults) we are also offered a series of puppets, generally very large and some more like kites, which might place our setting in China rather than the more traditional Egypt. The largest are polar bears that require up to three operators each.

At times, the brightness and colour can detract from the musical drama but this is an enjoyable evening especially for the music and singing and, who knows, many first-time afternoon visitors might still be going to the Met with their own grandchildren and telling them about their first visit to the children's opera, by the lady who created The Lion King.

Rivka Jacobson also reviewed this production

Reviewer: Philip Fisher