Die Zauberflöte

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday, December 15.

A week or so ago, I commented on how strange and creepy the story of The Nutcracker is—and I stand by that—but I have to admit The Nutcracker has nothing on Die Zauberflöte. With its clandestine order of monks, irrepressible bird-people, supernatural children, numerous melodramatic suicide attempts, and wild allusions to Masonic secrets and Zoroastrian mysticism, Die Zauberflöte is kooky even by operatic standards.

As such, it is well-suited for Julie Taymor’s distinctive, over-the-top direction. Taymor echoes the libretto’s hodgepodge of plot devices and references with a symbol-smothered rotating stage and costumes inspired by everything from geishas to Kabbalah to hip-hop.

At times, the jumble of imagery and ornamentation annoyed me (particularly when the stage crew noisily shifted the set during one of Sarastro’s arias), but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way the kaleidoscopic dazzle of the production kept the mustiness of age away from Mozart’s gleefully un-elite singspiel. No one could ever relegate the opera to a museum piece while enormous bears straight out of The Lion King dance to the beat of the music. If Taymor’s production is busy and cluttered (and it is), then so is Die Zauberflöte itself, charmingly so.

If only the opera weren’t so misogynistic! The endless pronouncements about the foolishness and duplicity of women (in general—not just specific characters) are obnoxious, especially since we only have Sarastro’s word that he is the good guy and the Queen of the Night is the villain. As far as I can tell, both treat others—even others they profess to love—with condescending disregard, the same carelessly remote air one would direct toward pawns on a chessboard. No amount of mythic imagery (not to mention all the phallic towers in Sarastro’s temple) can hide the fact that the Priest of light and Queen of darkness are mirror images of each other, not polar opposites.

Besides, the Queen of the Night is (with one possible exception) the most charismatic, energetic character in the whole opera. Sarastro pontificates, Tamino fawns, Pamina mewls, Monostatos grovels, but the Queen soars above them all with her vehement fury and her gorgeous coloratura line. Soprano Cornelia Götz made the Queen’s two iconic arias sound effortless, and Taymor complemented the strength of her voice with stunning moth-like wings, manipulated by shadowed dancers to rise and fall with the arc of the music.

The other showstopper of the production was the bird-people duet, as blithely unaffected as the Queen’s arias are commandingly grand. Having eschewed involvement in the clash of the titans, Papageno seeks only the simple pleasure of life with Papagena at his side. His stammered delight upon finally seeing her is adorable (“Pa, pa, pa—”), particularly when Papagena answers with stuttered Pa’s of her own. After all the zealotry and solemnity and portent of the rest of Die Zauberflöte, who could resist the simple tableau of two silly bird-people in love?