Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute

Julie Taymor’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at the Met is

an unqualified triumph. My guess is that it will last at least as long as the

David Hockney production it replaces (14 years), and might, conceivably, even

outlast The Lion King on Broadway. Some reviewers seem to hope that

it will serve as the ideal jumping-off point for the millions of New Yorkers

who have never been to an opera before; my only worry is that it will spoil

such people for the much more boring productions they’re bound to go see if

they do catch the opera bug. Either way, this is certainly the best production

of Zauberflöte that I’ve ever seen, and although there have been

countless others over the past 200 years, I’m sure that it’s one of the best

ever, anywhere.

The wonder and the curse of Zauberflöte is that it’s an utterly

magical opera, makes very little sense, and simply can’t be "played straight".

If the design team got the loudest ovations at the premiere on Friday, that

was partly because of their magnificent achievement, but also because it makes

no sense to criticise them from departing from the "normal" way of

doing things. With this opera, more than any other, you can’t just hire Franco

Zeffirelli to put on a lavish and utterly unimaginative production: it requires

colour, imagination, and inventiveness.

In the past, the Met has tackled this problem by hiring visually stunning artists,

like Hockney and Marc Chagall, to design striking sets for the opera. In choosing

Julie Taymor to direct it, however, they’ve tacked a little: she’s credited

for costume design, puppet design and overall production, but it’s her colleague

George Tsypin who gets credit for the sets. The result is a much less static

opera than Zauberflöte normally is: there’s nearly always movement

on stage, something to surprise and delight the audience even after their initial

awe at the staging has worn off. The moments which stick in the visual memory

are not the bits when the curtain rises, so much as individual scenes: dancing

bears, or Papageno’s puppet-feast, or the grand entrance, on a revolve, of the

Queen of the Night.

Moreover, for all its unprecedented theatrical innovation, Taymor’s production

is actually very conservative when it comes to what really matters – the

music. The overture is played from beginning to end with the curtain down and

nothing happening on stage at all, and when a cast member is singing, he or

she is always standing up, facing the audience, with nothing interfering with

our ability to enjoy their work. There are a few scrims in this production (regular

readers of this blog might recall that scrims are something of a pet peeve of

mine), but they’re used rarely, and never in between a singer and the

audience. No one is asked to sing while lying down, or sitting down, or hanging

upside-down from a trapeze, or even to navigate a precarious rake. The whole

production fits neatly inside the proscenium: Taymor is confident enough of

her theatrical abilities that she doesn’t see any need to break the rules for

effect.

I have to say, then, that I’m extremely puzzled at the extremely curmudgeonly

review

that Tony Tommasini gave the production in the New York Times."Ms. Taymor’s

production is so packed with stage tricks, so peopled with puppets, kite-flyers,

dancers and extras of sundry description," he says, "that the exceptionally

fine musical performance given by the conductor James Levine and a strong cast

was overwhelmed". Tommasini goes on to give specific examples: armed guards

are "rendered irrelevant" by puppets; Tamino "looked distracted,

as if trying to remember and execute a predetermined pattern of stylized poses";

other puppets have the unfortunate effect of preventing us from "pondering

Papageno’s romantic dilemma".

I’m sure that if Die Zauberflöte is presented in concert performance,

that might help the audience concentrate a bit more on the music. But the whole

point of opera as an artform is that it is the confluence of music and theatre;

Taymor’s Zauberflöte simply constitutes theater just as magical

as the music.

I really don’t understand Tommasini’s point at all: of all the operas in the

world, Zauberflöte is one of the least fragile. To put it mildly,

this particular opera isn’t exactly famous for its piercing psychological insights:

the libretto makes no sense at all, even by operatic standards, and the number

one reason to go see it is simply to listen to a large chunk of the most beautiful

music ever written. Now I didn’t go to the exact same performance that Tommasini

did (I went last night, to the second performance), but I vividly remember that

scene with the armed guards where he says they "might as well have been

performing from the orchestra pit". And I can distinctly remember what

I was thinking as I watched that scene: that the staging was hugely impressive,

that the music was gorgeous, and that – foremost – the singing was

some of the best in the opera.

In Zauberflöte of all operas, there’s really no need for the

singers to be the most important thing on the stage, visually speaking. Tommasini

does have a shadow of a point when he talks about the costumes: they weren’t

really up to the standard of the staging or the puppets, but that didn’t really

matter because the voices were so good. I’d say it was an excellent ensemble

cast: no one really stood out, but everybody sang their parts with accuracy

and feeling. There’s no doubt who the audience favourite was, though: the spirit-guide

boy trebles, who were perfectly in tune and in time with each other.

Julie Taymor, with this prodution, has finally taken the weight of the story

off the shoulders of the singers – and for that we should be grateful

rather than aggrieved. "It’s my job to make the libretto and the staging

magical," she seems to be telling her singers: "your job is to do

the same for the music". And, under the masterful direction of James Levine,

that’s exactly what they did.

I had the most wonderful night at the opera last night, thanks to a cast and

crew of hundreds. Of all the people who contributed to the evening’s success,

Taymor, though crucial, was only the third most important. Levine was number

two: he absolutely nailed the score, and reminded me that the Met’s

band is still one of the top five orchestras in the world. Number one, of course,

was, and is, and ever shall be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Taymor did what she does best, without interfering with either Levine or Mozart,

and that is probably her greatest achievement of all. And with all due respect

to Tony Tommasini, anybody who thinks that Mozart’s score can’t stand up to

a couple of puppets is in dire need of an injection of general musical enthusiasm.

Then again, I fear that Tommasini might not have been alone. Yet again, I came

away sorely disappointed in the quality of the Met’s audience, which seemed

to be comprised last night mainly of a large contingent from the Upper West

Side Hospital for Acute Bronchial Disorders. Given that the average age seemed

to be somewhere north of 70, you’d think that they’d've worked out by now that

the overture is actually part of the opera, and that when the orchestra is playing

music, it might be a good idea to discontinue their conversations. But maybe

this is what happens when you bring Julie Taymor to the Met: you get people

who think that if they can talk and cough in The Lion King, they can

talk and cough in Zauberflöte. Idiots.

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6 Responses to Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute

  1. Jame says:

    On your last point:

    One expects such low standards from young audiences who at least have the excuse of never knowing better. But if the elderly have also turned into assholes, we’re screwed.

    On the other hand, rich old bastards have always been rich old bastards. Get a more rural audience and see what happens.

    Thanks for the post; I’m an ignoramus but would like to check this out if next time I’m in New York…think it’ll last through spring?

  2. Felix says:

    Absolutely! It’s coming back for five performances in April. I’ll be there.

  3. Eric says:

    Your review is very encouraging. I’m going next Monday with my parents (my mother is a light opera director/choreographer in Ohio), and I just read the Times review.

    I’m very excited. I grew up watching opera, but I haven’t been to many in my adult life, so I’m still pretty ignorant. But I love Mozart.

  4. jen says:

    thank you for your comments. I haven’t seen the opera but would like to very much, if not this spring then hopefully next year (its certain to sell out). But I couldn’t agree more with A. Tommasini’s review! I was so disappointed in his lack of enthusiasm for creativity and activity and excitement. And you know, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Met had one opera where people brought their kids in droves to see it..starting a whole new audience for opera which is what everyone complains about. snob. When I was about 10 I fell in love with the Magic Flute via that scene of the Queen of the Night aria in the movie “amadeus”. that may be totally middlebrow, but I am the one who now pays (maybe only 1x a year) to see an opera because of that…it has to start somewhere. And I loathe lincoln center audiences! Haven’t been to the Met since I stood up to see Othello. (too expensive…I go to city opera!)

  5. Lise says:

    We just saw The Magic Flute.

    Just extraordinary.

    Congradulations!

    Qu├ębec, Canada

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