Taymor’s ‘Flute’ Plays Again
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It was exactly two years ago that Julie Taymor’s production of “The Magic Flute” premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. While this wasn’t a universal opinion, I found it just about the most imaginative and delightful thing ever to come down the pike. I also believe that the composer, Mozart, and the librettist, Herr Schikaneder, would beam with gratitude.
Well, Ms. Taymor’s dancing bears and the rest of her menagerie are back at the Met, as the company relaunched “Flute” on Saturday afternoon. The production is even more absorbing than I had remembered. Repeated viewings reveal new details.
I will point out what I regard as a flaw, however — and it may be an unavoidable flaw: Sarastro sings “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” in front of a scrim; behind it, scenery is being changed.The aria in question is one of the holiest in opera, and the noise in the background is unfortunate. Very unfortunate. But, as I concede, scenery has to be changed sometime.
Conducting the performance on Saturday afternoon was Scott Bergeson. It so happens that the Met’s music director is probably the finest Mozart conductor in the world. It seems a pity not to use him, in any “Flute.” But James Levine can’t conduct every performance, and, besides, he is currently conducting another Mozart opera at the Met: “Idomeneo.” And Mr. Bergeson did respectably.
Almost stealing the show was the baritone in the role of Papageno: Nathan Gunn. He sang well, and he acted up a storm — yet he avoided ham. He was an athletic and hilarious Papageno, a hoot every time he appeared on the stage. His antics showed excellent timing. Who knew that Mr. Gunn had this much Jim Carrey in him? His scenes with the Old Wife — nicely portrayed by Monica Yunus — were particularly enjoyable.
The soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian was Pamina, and she was beautiful in every way you can be: in singing, in comportment, in looks. She brought out the radiance of this noble — indeed, royal — character. And it’s good to see Ms. Bayrakdarian graduate to a Mozart role beyond Zerlina (“Don Giovanni”). I might add that, though Ms. Bayrakdarian’s voice is a light lyric one, it is not without power, when the singer wants some.
Her Tamino was the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who was unusual: He was a heroic-sounding Tamino, almost Tannhäuser-like.There’s room for that. Not every Tamino has to sound like Michael Schade or Matthew Polenzani, sweet ‘n’ tender. But Mr. Kaufmann did not have his best afternoon, fighting the flats.
The soprano Erika Miklósa presented her calling card: the Queen of the Night. She sang this show-stopping role in an understated but nevertheless effective manner. Her high Fs were reliable. She was a little low on one — just one — but, like a pro, she adjusted to nail the next.
And Stephen Milling, a Danish bass, was Sarastro. Just as you can’t have James Levine in the pit for every Mozart opera, you can’t have René Pape sing every time you do “The Magic Flute.” And unfair comparisons are unsporting. Like Mr. Bergeson, Mr. Milling did respectably.
One final word: Many people have complained about the bodysuit worn by Méphistophélès in Andrei Serban’s production of “Faust,” now playing at the Met. That suit has been refined a bit (or, at least, such is my impression). But, even at its most vulgar, the Méphistophélès suit was a thing of delicate beauty compared with the one Ms. Taymor puts on Monostatos. He’s as ugly as Pamina is pretty — which is, I’m sure, the point.
With his New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel conducted a delicious French program on Friday night. On the first half was Ravel’s short opera “L’Enfant et les sortilèges” (“The Child and the Spells,” roughly).And on the second was Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, known as the “Organ” Symphony. Mr. Maazel is long established as a “French” conductor, and Friday night did nothing to spoil his reputation. It was a fantastic evening.
Ravel wrote “L’Enfant” in 1924-25, to a libretto by Colette. It’s about a boy who — bored and petulant — goes on a tear, destroying the objects around him.They turn on him, frightfully, and he is duly chastened. Many people consider “L’Enfant” the best thing Ravel ever wrote and, indeed, one of the best things anyone ever wrote. There is a case to be made.
Mr. Maazel has a daunting history with the work, having made a landmark recording of it and having played in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when the work was conducted by Victor de Sabata — who premiered “L’Enfant” in Monte Carlo in 1925.
There were many forces assembled on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall for Ravel’s opera: the Philharmonic, of course, and the New York Choral Artists, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and eight soloists. Mr. Maazel wrung everything he could out of them, and the work. He was exacting, playful, severe, insouciant, coarse, mystical, fun — whatever the score asked him to be. And you will seldom hear the jazz elements of “L’Enfant” so pronounced, or stylish. It’s no accident that Mr. Maazel and André Previn are the two foremost conductors of this opera. Each has loads of jazz in him. They are also the two best conductors of Gershwin.
If I could cite one moment in particular: Mr. Maazel urged on the kids of the Brooklyn chorus with dazzling ferocity. This was in the “math” section of “L’Enfant.” (The kids are numbers.) No doubt they were thrilled, as were we, in the audience.
Singing the title role — the Child — was the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. She also acted a little, though this was, of course, a concert performance.And that was to the good. As usual, she sang intelligently and vibrantly. Also impressive was another mezzo, Kelley O’Connor, who displayed her dark, smoky, and beautiful instrument. She sings super-smoothly with that instrument, too. With every appearance she makes, we see that this is a singer to be reckoned with.
The soprano Patrizia Ciofi performed as expected: accurately, pleasingly, and easily. Coloratura seems to pose no problem for her.And when she sings a fairy princess — boy, is she a fairy princess. And the mezzo Isabel Leonard was a cat, a tremendously coquettish cat. All the other singers — Philippe Castagner, Kevin Deas, Ian Greenlaw, and Jessica Jones — adopted the spirit of the work, too. (Or perhaps I should say spirits.) And they obviously had a ball, which is not to be discounted in music.
As for the New York Choral Artists, they were stable and beautiful, particularly in the final chorus, which had a healing quality.That is quite right, too, as the world has been healed, by the end of the opera.
Frankly, I’ve always sort of scratched my head when the likes of Ned Rorem (the composer) proclaim “L’Enfant” a singular masterpiece. But, more and more, I see their point.
Before the Saint-Saëns symphony began, a friend sitting next to me said, “I have a weakness for this work.” But there’s no need to apologize, really: It is a marvelous symphony — ingeniously crafted and filled with inspiration. Unfortunately, many of us have internalized the criticisms of the modernist scolds, for whom Saint-Saëns is poison, or sickly candy. (Same thing.) Nuts to them. And clearly Maestro Maazel feels the same, for he not only programmed the work, but he conducted the bejesus out of it.
The players were not together when they began, and there were other bobbles later. This was not the tightest performance on record. But the orchestra did some first-class playing. In the slow movement — or what might pass as the slow movement, in this unusually arranged work — the strings’ unison was warm, sincere, and moving. Here and elsewhere, Mr. Maazel and his players expressed the “religioso” quality that belongs to Saint-Saëns (who was a church organist). The second movement began with notable bite and drama. And the close was as grand — and noble and majestic — as you could have wanted.
A couple of footnotes: Mr. Maazel used a score for both the Ravel opera and the Saint-Saëns symphony. For anyone else, this would be completely unremarkable, but Mr. Maazel seldom relies on a score.
Second, the lights were on in the house, all through the concert. I could not see a need for them in the opera, because, to my knowledge, no libretto was passed out. The words appeared on an electronic screen above the stage. (These were supertitles.) And for the symphony — what could be the reason for lights? Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think it’s … better, somehow, when lights are low.
Hey, isn’t that a song?
Please accept a correction, related to the above-mentioned Andrei Serban production of “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera. In my review last Thursday, I said that Ildar Abdrazakov, portraying Méphistophélès, looked like “Billy Munster.” (This is in Act I, when Méphistophélès sports formal wear.) The sitcom character, of course, was Eddie Munster. An American should no sooner forget a Munster’s first name than Lincoln’s. It was Ezekiel, right?
“The Magic Flute” until March 8 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).