NEW YORK — Mozart’s The Magic Flute invariably arrives in productions that are provisional — wonderful in some parts, not in others — and that’s true even in the Metropolitan Opera’s latest incarnation, which is ostensibly and justifiably a hit.
The May 19 opening-night audience laughed and cheered in all the right places — never an obligatory reaction to applause points — with a cast notably including soprano Erin Morley and tenor Lawrence Brownlee. The new, modern-dress Simon McBurney production was full of fresh ideas. There was much physical exuberance with singers running down the aisles, and the Queen of the Night was a desperate, fallen monarch in a wheelchair. Visual input came from shadow puppets and ongoing commentary, with an onstage scribe scribbling on a blackboard projected onto a large screen.
Colorful it is not. The final chorus celebrating the victory of enlightenment is less than magical, resembling Nixon in China more than The Magic Flute. Still, the opera is very much allowed to be itself — in contrast to, say, the gag-a-minute Barrie Kosky production seen at Opera Philadelphia in 2017 that was full of great computer-generated imagery but barely tried to tell the story.
Here, British director McBurney, whose theater company Complicité once made annual summer visits to Lincoln Center, was working on the huge scale demanded by the Met. What would he come up with? He has no set method, aside from his many different ways of getting to the fundamental truth of whatever he is exploring, which has gained him admirers from Stephen Sondheim to John Eliot Gardiner. Far from the luminous colors of the David Hockney production, as well as others that take the story’s Egyptian mythology overtones literally, set designer Michael Levine has much of the opera taking place on a dark and stormy night, with a lost-hero Tamino rescuing the maiden Pamina and then undergoing various trials and tests to join an enlightened Masonic-like cult. At the start, the usually embarrassing stage dragon that pursues Tamino arrives in the form of a screen-projected writhing snake that conveys madness inside his head, giving the character a greater impetus to embark on his quest to come. In other words, Tamino is plagued from within. Brilliant!
The freewheeling birdwatcher Papageno (Thomas Oliemans, in his Met debut) has computer-generated birds flapping around him — good touch — but carries around a stepladder for various practical and symbolic reasons that look less relevant with each passing scene. Most often, a huge platform that can move every which way acts as a neutral space in which scenes are played out with suggestive details, inviting the audience to complete the picture with their own imaginations. Here and there, McBurney also undercuts some of his own imagery with compelling trial-by-fire images ending with a jokey fire extinguisher. Oh well.
Speakers placed throughout the auditorium created atmospheric sound effects, most especially a foreboding rumble during the Masonic tests. One was not sure if the distant police sirens were the real thing outside the Met or part of the sound design. Singers had body microphones for spoken dialogue, which melded seamlessly with non-amplified singing. This is an excellent solution for other dialogue-heavy works, since unamplified speech at the Met often comes out in a strange Sprechstimme. The dialogue itself had been massaged a bit into something more colloquial, sometimes flowing into the processional marches. Nothing wrong with that. The ultimate aim in many of these effects was to invite the audience into the process of the opera, and that was indeed accomplished — no small thing at the Met.
But for all that invention and effort, the central problem lies in the opera itself. If one is to believe recent scholarship — that the fairy tale plot of Act I was meant as a prelude to the more serious Masonic trials of Act II — one can’t help but conclude that, as of 1791, Mozart had no musical vocabulary for this kind of otherworldliness. Not until the unresolved dissonances of Weber’s 1821 Der Freischütz — the Wolf’s Glen scene, obviously — did the next world convincingly arrive on this world’s opera stage.
Of course, what music is there shows Mozart distilling his art from the sophistication of previous operas to something more direct, though never did that keep Brownlee from giving arias and especially recitatives an extra dramatic charge. Morley needed a minute to truly settle into Pamina’s big Act II aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” but in general, hers was some of the most eloquent Mozart singing I’ve heard in years. As engaging as Oliemans’ Papageno was as a stage presence, his voice was surprisingly monochrome. Though I never envisioned praising the Queen of the Night for shrieking some notes in her intricate coloratura passages, they were thoroughly called for in soprano Kathryn Lewek’s memorably infirm interpretation of that role. Bass Stephen Milling’s Sarastro was strangely unimposing, projecting a Zen-like blankness, though the vividly malevolent Monostatos of tenor Brenton Ryan made the character into a modern, would-be sexual abuser.
Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann was in her element during the overture, though the strong-minded profile that she projected in the concurrent Don Giovanni production at the Met wasn’t much apparent here, where she was more about accommodating the singers than imposing some personal vision of the opera. The orchestra pit was raised so that the musicians were visible, for reasons that Stutzmann overstated in an interview, where she talked in terms of rescuing the instrumentalists from the cave-like isolation of the usual Met configuration. The musicians protested on social media, spelling out how closely they commune with what they can’t necessarily see onstage. But the raised orchestra was typical in Mozart’s time and further telegraphed to the audience that we’re all in this together. For revivals, that configuration probably won’t be necessary to re-conjure what was right about this production. But nobody is having the final word on The Magic Flute anytime soon.
The Magic Flute plays at the Metropolitan Opera in repertory through June 10 and is broadcast live in movie theaters on June 3. For information and tickets, go here.