Opera Review: ‘The Magic Flute’ at the Met

December 24, 2013 Updated: December 24, 2013

NEW YORK—For those seeking a bit of high culture for holiday family entertainment, the Metropolitan Opera has brought back Julie Taymor’s 2004 production of “The Magic Flute” (Die Zauberflöte).

This is a stripped-down, 100-minute version of the opera, performed in English. Although I prefer Mozart’s music unabridged, I confess that I prefer the dialogue in my own language rather than German.

The translation by American poet J.D. McClatchy is witty and clarifies the action, though the singing was not always intelligible. (As always, the translation appeared on the back of the seat in front of each audience member.)

Children of all ages (including me) were entranced by the puppets designed by Taymor and Michael Curry, as well as the cast members, even if some of them mugged a bit.

The opera is a mixture of comedy and mysticism with romance, sorcery and monsters. The composer and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were both members of the fraternal order of Freemasons and the work reflects their beliefs, although these elements are downplayed in this abridged version in favor of the humor and action.

The entrancing melodies are unmistakably the work of the great Mozart, who died only three weeks after the premiere. The opera is supposed to take place in Egypt but Taymor’s version (with striking sets by George Tsypin) places the action in a fairy-tale world.

This is as magical as her production of “The Lion King” but with better music.

The eminent British conductor Jane Glover led a graceful performance that drew out all the nuances in the score. She is only the third female conductor at the Met.

The excellent cast was mostly American. Lyric tenor Alek Shrader was a world-class prince Tamino. Soprano Heidi Stober was a radiant Pamina, delivering a sensitive rendition of “Now My Heart is Filled with Sadness.”

As Papageno the bird man, baritone Nathan Gunn sang with style, moved gracefully and enunciated with clarity. Gunn was very cute when he sang about his longing for “A Cuddly Wife or Sweetheart.” He was clearly the favorite of the children in the audience.

Bass Eric Owens was a sonorous Sarastro, achieving the requisite low notes in his aria, “Within our Sacred Temple,” and John Easterlin (unrecognizable with a prosthetic nose and fake belly) was entertaining as the devious slave Monostatos.

Cast members from non-English-speaking countries also sang well and handled the language with aplomb. Russian coloratura Albina Shagimuratova knocked out a dazzling rendition of the treacherously difficult Queen of the Night’s aria and Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang was impressive as the Speaker.

Though older than the target audience, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at “The Magic Flute.” More operas directed by Julie Taymor, please.

“The Magic Flute” is running intermittently at the Met (212-362-6000, metopera.org.) through Jan. 3, 2014.

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