Deeper, Riskier Magic Flute A Triumph of Sinister Thrills

Julie Taymor’s staging of The Magic Flute is the Metropolitan Opera’s finest theatrical achievement in years. During the past decade, the company’s new productions have lurched between industrial fussiness (Herbert Wernicke’s Die Frau ohne Schatten), chilly mannerism (Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin) and creaky bravado (most of the revamped Verdi operas). But in putting Mozart’s crowning masterpiece in the hands of the creator of such theater landmarks as Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass and The Lion King, the Met has come up with a perfect fusion of director and subject. This Magic Flute is a delight for both sophisticated and first-time operagoers—from 8 to 80, as the movie ads used to say. It should rival Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production of La Bohème as a box-office perennial.

Unlike the Puccini opera, The Magic Flute has never been a surefire crowd pleaser. There’s more than a whiff of didacticism in the way Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, have coupled a faux-naïve rescue fable with Masonic initiation rituals, and many directors (notably Ingmar Bergman in his 1975 film) have attempted to sweeten the odd mixture by turning it into a bedtime story. Ms. Taymor takes a deeper—and riskier—approach. In a program essay, she calls the opera a “metaphysical fairytale.” She doesn’t stint on the supernatural enchantments, which are introduced by a flying, stage-length serpent; and she takes pains to remind us that The Magic Flute, which had its world premiere in Vienna in September 1791, three months before Mozart’s death, is the composer’s final testament to his vision of earthly life as a frequently bewildering enterprise, fraught with danger. Her production could have taken its cue from Maynard Solomon’s observation in his masterly biography of the composer that “Mozart is one of those rare creative beings who comes to disturb the sleep of the world.”

The Magic Flute has often been compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (there’s a wise sorcerer in each, Sarastro and Prospero, and dramatic tension between nature and nurture, nobility and lust), but a truer companion piece might be Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Both works depict an innocent protagonist as a stranger in a strange land, a place without moorings or probabilities. In both, everything is topsy-turvy and illusion keeps changing places with reality. In Mozart’s opera, good (the Queen of the Night) turns out to be evil; evil (Sorastro) turns out to be good; an old crone becomes an ingénue (Papagena). The ground is always slippery.

Ms. Taymor’s presiding visual metaphor, ingeniously realized by her set designer, George Tsypin, is a translucent container whose triangular striations (like many of the director’s costume touches) underscore the opera’s obsession with the potent number three. In keeping with the work’s musical and dramatic mutability, its shifting exterior and interior landscapes, this huge contraption is light on its feet, revolving, separating, changing color, opening and closing like a kaleidoscope to expand, shrink, frame and mirror the surreal action. Surrounding the fun house are silk drops with imagery derived from all manner of secret rites, including those of Tantric cults, alchemy and Mozart’s beloved order of Freemasons.

Ms. Taymor is an unbridled globalist, which suits The Magic Flute ’s universal reach. There’s the macabre gaiety of a Venetian carnival in the Queen of the Night’s Three Ladies, who arrive brandishing implacable masks. The director’s signature, Indonesian-style puppets—including a brigade of gigantic black-and-white cats whose choreography would have made Walt Disney blush—are on vivid display, embellishing the interior action, and in general provoking metaphysical consternation. Ms. Taymor is also a virtuoso of sinister thrills, and perhaps the most eerie of her co-conspirators are the puppeteers themselves—fleetingly glimpsed, faceless shadows who manipulate their charges with silent glee.

To sort out all the dramatic and visual references would take a book, and I will say only that they range from Kabuki to Buster Keaton. This is an enormously busy production, and by the time the Masonic trial by fire and water is introduced by two giant scarecrows with raging furnaces for heads, you may feel that enough is enough. But the production is busy organically—with ideas, not effects, and with a commitment to the transformative power of sheer beauty that matches the distilled sublimity of Mozart’s score. This Flute is both gorgeous to look at and a tremendous amount of fun.

Another book could be written about Mozart’s musical pluralism, which ranges from the Queen of the Night’s high Baroque coloratura, to Sorastro’s hymn-like gravitas, to Tamino and Pamina’s poignant balladeering, to Papageno’s folkloric simplicities. Ms. Taymor is well aware that her expansive imagination would not count one whit if it overwhelmed the music, and she has allowed virtually all the glorious arias and duets to speak for themselves, without interference from flying serpents and the like. (If the entrance of sexy ostriches on point during Papageno’s famous wish aria strikes you as anything but delicious, you shouldn’t have come in the first place.)

I attended both the second and the third nights, during which the performances by a youthful, multinational cast, conducted with genial delicacy by James Levine, were for the most part vocally ardent and dramatically true, even during the stretches of spoken dialogue. (The exceptionally skillful Met titles are by the poet J.D. McClatchy.) As the Queen of the Night, the Slovak soprano L’ubica Vargicova made up in florid malevolence for an insecurity in the cruelly exposed upper reaches of her showpiece arias. The American tenor Matthew Polenzani was a Tamino of great sweetness and strength—fully recognizable behind his Nanki-Poo makeup as a young naïf coming into full manhood. The Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov, a recent graduate of the Met’s Young Artist Development Program, was an immensely likable Papageno, a class clown who wore his bird cap backward, homeboy style. The Sorastro of the Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, dressed like a golden Mikado, managed to be at once scary, wise and utterly inscrutable. Special mention must be made of the three genii, who were sung not by the usual sopranos and mezzo-sopranos but by a trio of eerily true-voiced little boys, possibly not older than 8, with spiky-white hair, white diapers and long white beards. The cast list named them as Aiden Bowman, Jason Goldberg and Lev Pakman, but the planet from which they arrived on trapezes has not yet been identified.

The most affecting figure onstage was the unusually full-voiced Pamina of the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, who made such a vibrant Susanna in last season’s The Marriage of Figaro. I’m informed that Ms. Röschmann, who is visibly pregnant, will be unavailable when The Magic Flute returns to the Met next April. She will be greatly missed. She filled the house with a radiance that seemed to come not only from her richly expressive artistry, but from sheer wonderment at finding herself on this magical mystery tour. We were lucky to be along for the ride. Deeper, Riskier Magic Flute A Triumph of Sinister Thrills