We open on a featureless landscape of grays and blacks hidden by a scrim. Suddenly a massive hand emerges, writing on the back wall …D…I…E…Z…A..U…B….. Look to the left; there’s a man with a chalkboard—it’s his hand projected that we’re seeing. He writes and erases, telling us where we are, what show we’re about to see and who wrote it, before drawing two jagged lines that morph into mountains to become the setting of the opera. Look to the right, and you’ll see bottles and sheets of aluminum, shakers, noisemakers, bird calls—all things to make sounds that sound like other sounds.
Die Zauberflöte is a fairytale with depth—full of not just magic and humor but also big ideas wisdom and beauty triumphing over the forces of evil. Simon McBurney’s production, which premiered in London a decade ago, gets its magic from a thrilling materiality that emerges in curious places. Tactile embellishments involving paper, chalkboards, fabric and books alongside a whole slew of objects used to create sound—from wine bottles to celery stalks and sheets of aluminum—complement Mozart’s world, itself full of birds and bells and instruments of all kinds.
Blake Habermann, the visual/video artist and owner of the chalkboard hand, creates the majority of projections via a clever video setup at the edge of the stage. Habermann’s actions—using shadow-puppetry to create Sarastro’s temple from a stack of books or draping a sparkling cloth over a box for the Queen of the Night—are projected onto scrims and curtains to create the backdrop for the action in real time. These projections also comment upon the action as it unfolds. Meanwhile, Ruth Sullivan at her foley station brings the other half of McBurney’s fantasy to life, evoking environments and fleshing out the sonic world.
What McBurney, who has plenty of film and theater experience, gets completely right is a sense of immediacy that involves both the visual/video and the audio. Responding in real-time, Habermann and Sullivan capture the anything-can-happen shimmer that defines live theater while allowing for film effects, becoming a bridge between the actors and musicians, computer-generated projections from Finn Ross and effects created by sound designer Gareth Fry.
The result is a unique combination of the DIY, found-object spirit and the technical fireworks, practical effects and stunt work that require serious cash to do right—a fascinating mix of slick fantasy and earthy, tactile reality.
Michael Levine’s set is nearly bare, save the visible scaffolding and large flat platform on the raked stage, laying flat but suspended at the corners. Throughout the evening, this platform produces some staggering, death-defying images as it rises, tilts and flips while actors clamber atop, slide down it or appear, as if by magic, above it. Several moments—Tamino and Pamina singing ten feet in the air on a 45-degree angle or the revelation of a periodic table under the platform—induce genuine gasps.
But all the visual thrills and technical prowess would be only half as impressive without McBurney’s generous and thoughtful direction and his ability to combine highly stylized movements with more grounded emotional moments (particularly in his characterizations of Sarastro and Pamina). Thankfully, his cast is more than up to the challenge.
The supple-voiced and sympathetic Erin Morley, as Pamina, captures beautifully a young woman torn between different types of love—for her mother, for Tamino and for Sarastro, who becomes a surrogate father. Her “Ach, ich fühl’s” employs a richly sensitive pianissimo to convey the depths of her despair.
Stephen Milling, as a wonderfully kind and generous Sarastro, improved as the night wore on; his first “O Isis” fell a bit into rocky territory, but by the time we got to “In diesen heil’gen Hallen,” Milling’s voice was suffused with deep warmth, like stone warmed by the sun. The scene with Morley is surprisingly tender—a lesson from a father to a daughter that doesn’t feel condescending but instead full of love and understanding.
Lawrence Brownlee, as Tamino, is in fine voice; his full-bodied tenor emerges with remarkable purity and clarity, lending a welcome lightness to the Prince, who often ends up receding into the background for me, playing the straight-man as he does to Papageno.
Ladder-lugging baritone Thomas Oliemans makes for charming Papageno indeed, bringing to the beloved bird-man his instinct for physical comedy and a not-unwelcome sharp edge, especially during dialogue. McBurney’s production flies closest to distractingly overstuffed when it came to Papageno scenes, however, which often mean that Oliemans’s singing takes a back seat to the visual and sonic cacophony. His duet with silvery-voiced soprano Ashley Emerson’s Papagena (with Jumbotron-type accompaniment from Haberman) is a raucous high point.
Brenton Ryan, in the somewhat thankless role of Monastatos (who briefly feigns masturbation in what is not my favorite of McBurney’s flourishes), is appropriately threatening and sniveling all at once, bringing sly and energetic physicality and a sterling tenor sound. The moment when he and his cronies are enchanted by the bells, however, is supremely delightful and makes up for the earlier faux pas. Expect other fine turns from Alexandria Shiner, Olivia Vote and Tamara Mumford as the Three (lusty) Ladies with Mumford delivering an especially powerful sound in the ensembles, and on the Sarastro side of things, Harold Wilson as the Speaker, and Richard Bernstein and Errin Duane Brooks as the Priests/Armed Men. Deven Agge, Julian Knopf and Luka Zylik were adorable as Knaben, all dressed up as tiny ancient men.
Finally, there was the star-blazing Queen herself, soprano Kathryn Lewek, who could probably sing the Queen of the Night in her sleep. In this production, she is aged up with crone makeup and delivers a wonderfully physical performance as a frail, frightened woman whose only remaining power is her voice (which is agile as ever, if occasionally a little strained on top). The Queen’s evil is more sad than scary, as she tries and fails to manipulate her daughter and her eventual son-in-law.
McBurney understands that Zauberflöte is also a tale about children and parents: how they fight, what types of power they wield and the kinds of knowledge they impart. The opposition of Queen of the Night/Sarastro, mother/father, emotion/reason, evil/good plays out with Pamina and Tamino in part because the younger characters have to learn how to trust, how to be brave and particularly for Pamina, how to break free of her mother’s influence to figure out what’s right. With that in mind, the chalkboard takes on new meaning—it evokes school, just like the books and paper do. But what exactly do the Queen of the Night and Sarastro teach the children?
While Schikaneder’s libretto is not clear on the core of its philosophical ideas beyond a general sense that wisdom and love are better than chaos and evil, one thing it is clear about is that this conflict takes place along gender lines (the libretto is blatantly misogynist). Sarastro embodies masculine Enlightenment ideals while the Queen and her ladies personify all the feminine-coded evils that must be swept away by the light of rationality.
McBurney, along with costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, makes an interesting choice not to present these factions as radical opposites, but instead as complements or inversions. The Queen and Sarastro are both silver-haired, in black and flanked by followers in similarly somber colors—Sarastro’s in corporate wear while the Queen’s are more casual. This positions both parental figures as potentially repressive, even if Sarastro is the morally superior one. McBurney seems to be saying that the young characters have to find their own ways to learn. If neither books (Sarastro) nor stars (the Queen) are adequate teachers, they must look elsewhere to know themselves. McBurney suggests the answer comes in the form of sound itself: the bells and the flute, already crucial aspects of the plot, are full characters, along with the other sounds that populate this magical world. At various moments, our heroes are told to rely on these instruments to save them.
Instrumental sound isn’t the only teacher in this production, however. In the trials in Act II, Tamino and Pamina are not only engulfed in the visual representations of fire and water but also overwhelmed by the sounds of the elements: the breathing, crackling fire or the roar of rushing water. In their trials, it becomes clear that sound, as a type of knowledge and a way to change ourselves and purify our hearts, is the looked-for escape hatch out of the binary represented by Sarastro and The Queen. It turns Pamina and Tamino into something new.
Ruth Sullivan’s foley work, along with Gareth Fry’s sound design, goes a long way to craft this sound world, but the glory still mainly belongs to the often visibly delighted Met Opera orchestra. Here, vivaciously directed by Nathalie Stutzmann, it feels as much a part of the production as the chorus does. The pit is raised halfway so the audience can see them, and the players interact with the actors. During Papageno’s introduction, for instance, they became birds by flapping folded papers as a bird-song version of Papageno’s bird motif plays. Flautist Seth Morris (in the title role) and Bryan Wagorn on Glockenspiel are fully-integrated characters, with Wagorn getting to do a bit of comic acting himself with Papageno. This was delightful and adorable to the audience and felt historically grounded, as players in Mozart’s time would have been visible. More than that, it helped reinforce McBurney’s point: in Die Zauberflöte sound and music are not just part of the world, they create the world, shaping the characters, serving as teachers and effectuating the magic.
In the final moments of the opera, McBurney offers one more moment of reconciliation. After Sarastro and the priests defeat the Queen, Sarastro offers her a hand and raises her up. Looking younger and stronger than ever before, she kisses him on the cheek and joins the wedding dance. Traditionally, Die Zauberflöte presents a vision of wisdom and beauty. In McBurney’s version, sympathy and forgiveness triumph as well.
Die Zauberflöte continues at the Metropolitan Opera through June 10.