Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Magic Flute - An abbreviated edition of Die Zauberflöte K 620 (sung in English) (1791)
Pamina - Ying Huang (soprano); Tamino - Matthew Polenzani (tenor); Papageno - Nathan Gunn (baritone); Sarastro - René Pape (bass); Queen of the Night - Erika Miklósa (soprano); Papagena - Jennifer Aylmer (soprano); Speaker - David Pittsinger (bass); Monostatos - Greg Fedderly (tenor); Three ladies: Wendy Bryn Harmer; Kate Lindsey; Tamara Mumford
The Metropolitan Opera and Chorus/James Levine
Director and Costume Designer: Julie Taymar; Set Designer: George Tsypin
rec. The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2006
Sound format: LPCM Stereo / DTS 5.1 surround sound; Region free NTSC DVD; Colour: Subtitles in English
SONY CLASSICAL DVD 88697910139 [112:00]

If you give children the keys to the sweet shop don’t be surprised if they over-indulge themselves. I wonder if director and costume designer Julie Taymar and her set designer, George Tsypin, felt that way when commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to design and stage a new Die Zauberflöte for presentation, in German, in 2004. It was certainly a spectacular using every stage and technical device the Met has and then some in terms of the flying animals, a wriggling serpent, a big cuddly bear and a host of other stage-effects. Then there are the costumes. Some, like Sarastro’s early appearance would look better on a dinosaur; his later costume is more appropriate. The stage rotates and the spectacle gets better and better. It must have cost a bomb. No wonder the credits for the funding take up a lot of the back of the box. There is no other booklet to tell us anything else about this production which was sung in English and why; consequently nor are there any printed Chapter details or timings.

It is certainly strange to see Jimmy Levine in the pit. It was he, I remember, conducting this opera at Salzburg in the early nineteen-eighties who included nearly all the spoken dialogue to give one of the longest performances of the opera since, I suspect, the premiere in Schikaneder’s tiny Theater auf der Wieden all those years ago. Now here he is conducting a performance just over 110 minutes long when a standard opera house might take another forty minutes or so and doubtless did for the original staging of this production, sung in German, in 2004. I suspect this abbreviation, and the singing in English, had something to do with children and the pantomime season. Certainly, given the spectacle, there would be no need for parents to venture onto Broadway for a special treat. The abbreviations are mainly, but not solely, of the extensive dialogue with arias also abbreviated or omitted. The performance was played without a break between acts.

Some soloists remain from the German sung premiere of the production in 2004. None are the stars of this show. Matthew Polenzani as Tamino is no Mozart tenor on this showing, lacking mellifluousness as well as much elegance of phrasing in his abbreviated Portrait aria (CH.5). Erika Miklósa, looking spectacular as Queen of the Night, was sadly lacking in the lower tones of her voice whilst coping much better with the high-flying coloratura. This meant that her Act One aria was barely acceptable as she struggled to give any body to her voice below the stave (CH.7). The more spectacular act two appearance, where many sopranos slip up, was much more acceptable (CH.25). René Pape’s Sarastro was a disappointment although his English was better than his adversary Queen. He struggled with his tone and phrasing (CHs.17 and 28) often failing to reach his lower notes and inject some sonority. Dressed as some kind of bird of prey, or even a bat, Greg Fedderly’s Monostatos, complete with tattooed beer belly and man boobs that would have made any pubescent teenage girl jealous, played his part well (CH.28) but was less impressive vocally.

The major success of this English language abbreviation was to be found in the wonderfully acted light-toned and expressive baritone of Nathan Gunn, particularly in the episode when Papageno is threatening to hang himself (CH.39). His Papagena was vivaciously acted and sung by Jennifer Aylmer (CH.39) whilst Ying Huang as Pamina was a delight throughout with a nicely phrased aria (CH.32). The three women, albeit in somewhat silly costumes, were fine.

As I have indicated, the stage effects were often spectacular although I have seen the trials by water and fire done better (CH.38). With Levine knowing this opera like the back of his hand, he paced the music as to the manner born with the orchestra following every nuance of his baton.

Robert J Farr

An ideal Christmas Present to get the kids off the tablet and computer and in to opera.