Wednesday night I went to the movies. This is something I have virtually stopped doing at this point in my life, but the occasion was a special one: I was attending a screening of The Magic Flute, an HD “encore presentation” by the Metropolitan Opera. I had been meaning to do this since since the inauguration of these broadcasts in 2006. This was the performance that kicked off the series that year.
I have loved this opera my entire life – seen it in live performance at least three times and listened to it countless times. So I went Wednesday night with certain expectations. One of those was that the work would be presented in the original German. I also thought I’d be seeing the work in its entirety. I should have taken the time to read the blurb on the Met’s site. Had I done so, I would have know that I would be attending “…an abridged 100-minute version, sung in English.”
I had less trouble with the abridgement than with the language. I know this opera in German. I don’t speak German, but I am on intimate terms with the (German language) libretto of The Magic Flute. Obviously I had to get past this dismaying change if I were to enjoy the evening. I did get past it – for the most part. Now this film did use subtitles from time to time; even English, when sung, can be hard to understand. It seems to me that they could have retained the German and used English subtitles more liberally.
The Met blurb proclaims that the shortened version of the opera and its presentation in English makes this version “perfect for opera fans of all ages.” Well, maybe. I realize that there’s a fine line between making high culture more accessible and outright dumbing it down. Also, mixed in with that fine line is the problem of the bottom line, especially in these parlous times. I grant all this. Just don’t expect us purists to be always cheering these “innovations”…
In some instances, the Englsh translation of the spoken dialog verged on the slangy. At one point, Poppageno (Nathan Gunn) asks, “Can’t a guy get a beer around here?” – or words to that effect. Poppageno is certainly a comic character, but at times in the film, Gunn’s antics were, IMHO, a bit over the top.
And speaking of Nathan Gunn, why was it so difficult – if not impossible – to tease out the names of cast members from the Met’s site? Opera has always thrived on the star system; the last thing these singers need is anonymity! This is especially true re this production, in which the singing was quite simply superb. Ying Huang, Matthew Polenzani, and Rene Pape were all three marvelous. And then there was Erika Miklosa as Queen of the Night, a role which is the ultiamte test for the coloratura, with its soaring showpiece arias. She triumphed – I had goosebumps!
Here she is in a concert performance of the fiendishly difficult (and incredibly gorgeous and dramatic) “Der Holle Rache:”
Doesn’t she just toss that off as though it were all in a day’s work! And incidentally, Miklosa is perfectly capable of “looking daggers” without the heavy make-up she wore in this production -make-up made even more grotesque by the frequent close-ups characteristic of filmed performance. A very attractive woman was transformed into a sorceress so frightful - with costumes to match - that it was almost hard to look at her. (The photo below does not quite convey the effect.)
You may have gathered that I’m somewhat ambivalent about Julie Taymor’s production. What with the lavish sets, garish lighting effects, and bizarre costumes, there was plenty of eye candy on display – perhaps, at times, too much. On the other hand, there were some wonderful touches; I particularly liked the outsized diaphanous puppets that looked like dancing polar bears:
Alex Ross, impressed by Julie Taymor’s “deeply dazzling vision,” reviewed the production with customary eloquence on his blog.
Here is Rene Pape singing ” Isis und Osiris,” as it was performed in the production I saw:
Finally, here are Nathan Gunn and Jennifer Aylmer in the much beloved duet sung by Papagena and Papageno. This is Mozart at his sunniest:
I walked out of the theater feeling like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s poem: “stunned / And…of sense forlorn.” For there is no experience quite like coming face to face with the genius of Mozart. I felt as though I had been in the presence of something holy.