On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera House had the lights on and the audience still in the aisles when the orchestra played the overture of Mozart's "Die Zauberflote".
Simon McBurney didn't want to punish anyone for not being attentive. He was easing the audience gently into a world of clever feints. A place where everything is highly imaginative yet endearingly simplistic -- and where the trick itself only enhances its magic.
McBurney's production, which was first presented at the Dutch National Opera 2012, features special effects artists flanking the stage and elevating the orchestra pit. The entire performance is viewed by all the musicians, right down to the last trombone.
This staging is a radical departure from Julie Taymor, who for 19 years had portrayed the world of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto in a colorful and feather-light puppetry. Set designer Michael Levine and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand have chosen neutral, dark colors for this production. The birdcatcher Papageno, however, is an exception.
Their resources appear to be modest, even plain. Women wear black slips with combat boots, and ragged fur coats. Men are in gray suits, and wide ties. The main stage is a large rectangular platform which can be suspended in various angles by cables attached at its corners.
Each side of the bare set is a different artist, whose effect is amplified by speakers and live video projections. Blake Habermann, the visual artist, was armed with a large chalkboard and projected live line drawings onto the scrim. With a pile of leather-bound volumes, he suggested the size of Sarastro's Temple of Wisdom. Ruth Sullivan, a Foley artist, parked at the left side of the stage with a cabinet full of curiosities. She used it ingeniously for adding sound effects to stage action.
"Die Zauberflote" is at least partly a parable about what people are capable of - what they can do when they look within themselves. McBurney’s apparent delight in the everyday feats performed by the show’s vast assemblage of actors, singers, and artists (who followed Papageno waving a paper bird) expands on an idea already present in the piece. His loyalty to the spirit of the show masked the shock of his departures. For example, when he added some dialogue to Papageno's entry aria.
McBurney also did some rethinking -- specifically around the opera's Battle of the Sexes wherein enlightened males shake their heads in disbelief at the frivolousness and folly of women. In Mozart and Schikaneder’s singspiel women are hidden in the wild, dark outskirts of Sarastro's orderly, shining sanctum. This binary is often accepted by the stage as a fact of the play; audiences laugh at jokes about women.
McBurney's staging was a success because he satirized the men's arrogance. I didn't hear any laughter when the misogynistic jokes in the book were made. The Three Ladies, with their sultry harmonies, and their gleeful inmodesty (they strip Tamino off his tracksuit, and then take a deep, sensual whiff), were a lot of fun. Sarastro's Temple, with its unflattering tube lighting overhead, was filled with bloodless corporate shills. The Speaker (Harold Wilson), Tamino’s guide to the Masonic character tests in the opera, transformed into a complacent and amusingly straight-laced factotum.
Sarastro's people, in this vision of two worlds that contrast, gave up something - a sense spontaneity and individuality. They were less for it. The March of the Priests as led by Nathalie Sutzmann had a real tenderness, indicating a sublimated emotion that they were able to retain but not channel. In this sense, "Die Zauberflote" is about how our differences make us whole when we put them together.
Papageno is the central figure in this universe. He's a colorful, messy, and muddy oddball, dressed in outdoor clothing. An everyman, he has become an unlikely superman by ignoring the cultural norms that would otherwise bind him. His dimwittedness protects him from Sarastro’s high-minded knowledge-mongering and his pure heart, from the Queen Of The Night's manipulations.
Thomas Oliemans was a unique Papageno, with his cheerful air, adorable stubbornness, and rambunctious baritone. He tapped out his best piece by tapping celery stalks onto bottles. He turned upstage and unzipped his fly to fill it up. Sullivan suggested that the action be in sound. He then casually began the aria Ein Madchen oder Weibchen without orchestra - an audacious sin at the Met - a temple to humanism where perfection is expected. It was peak Chaos Muppets energy. I won't ruin the rest. The audience was in a frenzy.
The Met, like Oliemans chose to cast the show using voices that were highly individual and not generically beautiful.
The tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and the soprano Erin Morley rely on timbral brilliance, rather than warmth, as the opera's central lovers Tamino, and Pamina. Brownlee, with his fizzy, focused, and bracing voice that doesn't conceal imperfections like a warmer tone, can become raucous if the vibrato is uneven. Morley's Pamina was a refreshing departure from the stereotype, as she played the princess in a way that was more worldly and suited to her new friend Papageno. Her 'Ach ich fuhls' was elegant and even mature in its aching -- an impossible thing to do when the aria's gorgeous solemnity is outweighed by its silly context. (Pamina wants Tamino to talk to her, but he won't).
Stephen Milling, who played Sarastro, sang with a gruff, bassy voice, but portrayed an effective CEO who maintained his dominion through platitudes and fear, as well as blunt persuasion. He scored a dramatic coup with his microphone, turning Sarastro's stale monologue into a corporate speech that was followed by a yea or nay vote at a conference table.
The Queen of Night's glory is reduced to a glimmer. She is a wonderful geriatric dressed in spangly clothes who can barely move. Kathryn Lewek, a soprano, was absolutely captivating in this regard. She emitted richly glowing bursts like a collapsing stars in "O zittre not." She careered across the stage in her wheelchair for 'Der Holle Rache', bringing thrilling drama and coloratura to a showpiece that is so difficult to perform even when standing still.
Stutzmann's tempos were rigid, but she still managed to elicit a full, vibrant sound. A few musicians also enjoyed cameos. Seth Morris played the magic flute of Tamino with a series of sprightly phrases. Bryan Wagorn, with a coffee cup in hand, ran 'late' onstage to play the keyboard glockenspiel. No worries: Oliemans stepped in and did an impressive job.
McBurney's cleverly crafted tensions were not resolved by the oddly corny staging of Tamino's and Pamina’s triumph following their trials. It looked like an over-the-top pharmaceutical commercial. Perhaps that was just another feint.
The evening ended in the same way it had begun, as the ensemble sang the final paean, a reconciliation between beauty and wisdom ("Schonheit und Weisheit"). Milling's Sarastro kissed the Queen's cheek after taking her hand. The characters appeared to be transforming into actors in front of our eyes, and invited the audience members' attention by asking if they had also changed.