Innovation & Enchantment From the ‘Old Met’

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The New York Sun

On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera began another run of Julie Taymor’s famed 2004 production of “The Magic Flute.” Some people find her treatment of Mozart’s opera too busy, too distracting — too dazzling, in a way. Others find it just about the most striking and enchanting thing they have ever seen in a theater. I’m in the latter camp.

And isn’t it interesting that such a production would have come from the “Old Met”? According to current mythology, the “Old Met” — that is, the Met before this season — was stuffy, unimaginative, dullsville. Go figure.

The Met’s first performance of “The Magic Flute” this season took place in early October. And the main difference between then and Friday night was the conductor: Last week, the company’s music director, James Levine, was in the pit, and that is not insignificant, given that he is about the best Mozart conductor we have.

The first chord of the overture on Friday night was a little off — not together. But there was not much wrong thereafter. And the opening chords as a whole told us a lot. Aside from that initial imprecision, the chords were resolute, solid, authoritative — Levinelike. The conductor took command of the performance from the beginning. And he was energetic, almost wound up, all evening long. In recent years, many of us have noted a lethargy, a listlessness, in Mr. Levine, caused by whoknows-what? I have noticed virtually none of that this season.

Consider a few details from Friday night. When Mr. Levine got to the fast section of the overture, he took it like the wind — faster than I have ever heard it from him (or most anybody). It sounded like a scherzo, and you might have thought of Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The orchestra was not 100 percent together, but it was together enough. This was a stirring, grin-making overture.

What else? The buildup to the Queen of the Night’s entrance was exciting — regally and scarily so. And at the end of the Queen’s second-act aria, Mr. Levine contributed a little surge of hell. The scurrying allegro when Monostatos hauled in Tamino was superb. And Act II opened with a simple, warm F major. Mr. Levine wasn’t doing anything to the music; he was just letting it be, which is everything.

How about Mozart’s C-major choruses (which Beethoven would echo in “Fidelio”)? They were as they reliably are from Mr. Levine: robust, compact, and uplifting.

You could complain here and there. I like the late duet between Papageno and Papagena to be a little teasing, a little milked. Mr. Levine remained straightforward, unbudging. You know who really handles this music delightfully? Riccardo Muti, the refugee from La Scala. At times, Mr. Levine was a bit too unsavoring and brisk on Friday night. But, in general, his “Magic Flute” was a clinic in Mozart conducting.

Another difference between October and last week: the tenor portraying Tamino. He was Christoph Strehl, a German, making his Met debut. Mr. Strehl has already established himself in Salzburg and elsewhere. As Tamino, he looked like something out of “Shogun,” with his white-powdered face and long, slick, black hair. At the beginning of the opera, he was quite good at putting on princely airs. And he sang ably. In “Dies Bildnis,” he was unusually Romantic, but not unrestrained. Interestingly enough, he gulped a little, Italian style. Act II saw a little intonation trouble, but nothing severe.

There are two Taminos in the world with extraordinarily beautiful voices: Michael Schade and Matthew Polenzani. Mr. Strehl cannot deliver that kind of beauty. But his sincerity and professionalism count for a lot.

A third difference between October and Friday? The soprano portraying the Queen of the Night. She was Cornelia Götz, another German, and she, too, was making her Met debut. Ms. Götz performed her arias very well, and with near-pinpoint accuracy. Those high Fs were on the money, I’m happy to say. She has a light, bird-like soprano — Galli-Curci-like. You may prefer your Queen to bring a little more heft. But Ms. Götz provides value.

In the role of Pamina, as before, was Isabel Bayrakdarian, the Armenian-Canadian soprano, and she had a splendid night. I have never heard her sing with such freedom and assurance.”Ach, ich fühl’s” was unusually soulful. And, throughout the evening, I noticed some smoke in her voice that I had never before detected. She appears to be hitting a stride, musically and vocally. She is more than a sweet, lyrical Zerlina (her role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”).

The baritone Nathan Gunn was again Papageno, again showing his strength as a character actor. He added something in Friday night’s performance: He broke into English, at one point. Was this perhaps in anticipation of the English-language, abbreviated “Flute” the Met will do, starting after Christmas?

Stephen Milling, a Danish bass, returned as Sarastro. Another bass, René Pape — a Sarastro for the ages — will take over the role soon (though not in English!). In the meantime, Mr. Milling will do just fine.

And I will record a final difference between October and December: Papagena is still Monica Yunus — but her father, Muhammad Yunus, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. And I can state unreservedly that, of all Peace Prize children, Ms. Yunus is the best singer. (I’m being cheeky: As I’ve written before, Ms. Yunus is a winning performer.)

I will also repeat a criticism: The scenery-changing during Sarastro’s aria,”In diesen heil’gen Hallen,”makes a terrible racket. The poor fellow has to sing through the London Blitz. This is intolerable, especially given the holiness of the aria in question. Surely the Met, with all its technical and other ingenuity, can find a solution.

And I will mount a particular hobbyhorse once more: The “New Met” is stringing banners across the façade of the house, and it is especially unfortunate now. Why? Because the banners cover up the Chagall murals, and Chagall has a history with the Met and “The Magic Flute.” I realize the late artist is “Old Met,” and we’re all hot and “New,” but really …

I have a suggestion: If the “New Met” wants to cover up art with banners, how about covering the paintings in the gallery downstairs?

Until March 8 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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