TV & Radio
The New York Times
January 1, 2007
An Opera at the Met That’s Real and ‘Loud’
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Even before the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” began, this family-friendly version of Julie Taymor’s 2004 production looked to be a huge success. Children were everywhere, a rare sight at the venerable institution. They were having pictures taken in front of the house, dashing up and down the stairs of the Grand Promenade and, before long, sitting up in their seats all over the auditorium.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s new general manager, whose multifaceted outreach efforts have already become a model for opera companies everywhere, has rightly stated that the major impediment to making this art form accessible to children is that most operas are simply too long. So besides translating the text from German into English, the solution here was to cut the production, which normally lasts 3 hours 10 minutes, down to 100 minutes without an intermission.
Actually the matinee clocked in at close to two hours, but few of the children seemed to mind. The audience was remarkably attentive and well behaved. Of course one strict Met protocol — if you leave the auditorium, you are not allowed re-entry until intermission — was wisely ditched for the day, so children could take restroom breaks.
Shortening the score involved what must have been painstaking decisions. The overture and several entire arias and ensembles were cut. Other arias were abridged through some very deft trims. Otherwise the Met went all out. The cast was excellent, and James Levine conducted.
The very free English translation by the poet J. D. McClatchy was clever and singable. Papageno, still without a girlfriend and miserable, asks forlornly: “Is my face just one big puddle? Aren’t I cute enough to cuddle?”
The Papageno, Nathan Gunn, was certainly cute enough. This dynamic baritone exuded charm and cavorted about the stage like an acrobat. At one point he tried to flee danger by scurrying up the side of a huge plastic tube he was trapped in, only to slide back down, landing with the floppy-limbed aplomb of a Charlie Chaplin. He seemed the darling of every child in attendance (and the audience included Mr. Gunn’s five).
The stupendous bass René Pape was Sarastro. A lovely, clear-voiced lyric soprano, Ying Huang, in her debut role at the Met, was an alluring Pamina. Matthew Polenzani brought his sweet tenor voice and wholesome appeal to Prince Tamino. The agile coloratura soprano Erika Miklosa was a vocally fearless and aptly chilling Queen of the Night. As the wicked Monostatos, the trim tenor Greg Fedderly was unrecognizable with his flabby, fake pot belly, which induced giggles every time he exposed it.
I am on record as being no fan of Ms. Taymor’s production, which to me is a mishmash of imagery, so cluttered with puppets, flying objects and fire-breathing statues that it overwhelms Mozart’s music. But this show was not presented with me in mind. So let me offer the reactions of three young attendees. Amitav Mitra, my neighbor, who is 8, came as my guest. And Kira and Jonah Newmark, 9 and 7, the children of friends, were also glad to share their critiques afterwards.
For Amitav, this was his first opera. Though Jonah had seen opera videos at home with his sister, he too was trying the real thing for the first time. Kira, a burgeoning opera buff, has attended, as she put it, “real three-hour operas,” most recently “The Barber of Seville” at the New York City Opera.
Not surprisingly Ms. Taymor’s fanciful sets, costumes and puppets won raves from this trio of critics. But their most revealing comments were about the singing and the story.
The singing “was loud,” Amitav said. Jonah added, “It was too loud.” Kira more or less agreed. I pressed them about this. Today, when children hear amplified music everywhere, often channeled right into their ears through headphones, how could unamplified singing seem too loud?
Amitav clarified their reactions when he said that the singing was “too loud for human voices,” adding, “I never thought voices could do that.”
So their reaction was not a complaint about excessive volume, but rather an attempt to explain the awesome impression made by Ms. Miklosa’s dazzlingly high vocal flights as the Queen of the Night, or Mr. Pape’s unearthly powerful bass voice, or the amassed chorus in the temple scenes. It takes a while for young opera neophytes to adjust to such mind-boggling voices, to realize that this strange, unamplified “loudness” is actually amazing.
The other common reaction concerned the story, which all three children enjoyed. Kira, though, was struck by the gravity of Prince Tamino’s dilemma. “Tamino was a little too serious for me,” she said, adding: “He never does anything that’s funny. He takes things seriously.”
I think Mr. Levine, who conducted a glowing and elegant performance, would be pleased by Kira’s reaction. Mr. Levine made certain that some of the opera’s most somber episodes were included, like the long scene in which the confused Tamino is confronted by the austere Speaker (David Pittsinger), a stalwart member of Sarastro’s brotherhood, at the entrance to the temple.
Like most fairy tales “The Magic Flute” is a mysterious story of good and evil. Naturally, Ms. Taymor’s production makes the opera’s monsters quite charming, like the puppet bears who are enchanted by Tamino’s magic flute. And the boys singing the kindly Three Spirits (Bennett Kosma, Jesse Burnside Murray and Jacob A. Wade) are turned spectral and eerie, with their bodies painted white and Methuselah beards.
This “Magic Flute” was the first Met opera that was transmitted live in high-definition video to some 100 movie theaters around the world. Ultimately the point of this technological outreach is to entice newcomers into attending opera performances. The children I spoke with are likely to be back.
Summarizing his reactions to “The Magic Flute,” Jonah said, “I don’t think it’s going to be the best opera I’m going to go to in my life.” What he meant, explaining further, was, “I’m, like, going to go to others that will be even better.”
The shortened “Magic Flute” repeats today, tomorrow and Thursday at 1 p.m.; (212) 362-6000 or metopera.org. Performances are sold out, but returns may be available.
Family `Flute' and simulcasts debut at Metropolitan Opera
By RONALD BLUM
Associated Press Writer
December 31, 2006, 6:14 PM EST
NEW YORK -- Judging by the masses of smiling children who streamed out onto Lincoln Center Plaza after a family-friendly, shortened version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," opera may have just gotten an influx of younger fans.
Starting Friday, the Metropolitan Opera began presenting an English-language performance of "The Magic Flute," trimmed to about 100 minutes, aimed at attracting families. Saturday's performance was beamed from Lincoln Center in high-definition simulcast to about 100 movie theaters around the world.
The debut of the cut-down version of Julie Taymor's colorful 2004 production was so popular it sold out. But for all its planning, the Met appeared to be somewhat unprepared for its shorter audience _ it ran out of booster seats in the orchestra 20 minutes before the start.
Given the breadth of the simulcast venture, there was no way to judge the success. The Met said it was encouraged by sales, final figures won't be available for several days. The quality of picture and audio was high, although technical problems prevented the simulcast from being seen at theaters in Burbank, Calif., and Jacksonville, Fla.
To adapt and pare down "Die Zauberfloete," the German-language original that runs slightly more than 3 hours, including intermission, the Met hired poet J.D. McClatchy. His English version emphasizes rhyme, meter and fun over exact word-for-word translation. For Papageno's duet with Papagena, McClatchy rhymed "lovey" with "turtle-dovey."
Purists may quibble with the many cuts _ which range from entire scenes to verses within arias _ but the full German version is being staged at night for those who want the complete production. Taymor said some cuts still were being debated in the final week, and the final version came in at about 105 minutes, 15 over the original projection. She and McClatchy kept true to their vow of not "dumbing down" the opera, which appeals to all age levels.
With oversized bear puppets and dancing pink flamingos wowing the audience as much as the sublime music, Taymor's staging has been popular. Music director James Levine, who led his usual polished performance, had a top cast to conduct. Nathan Gunn, in Papageno's green bird suit, was a frenetic delight. Matthew Polenzani brought a bright tenor and dignity to Tamino, the prince who is destined to marry Pamina. Soprano Ying Huang gave an endearing account of Pamina, whose role is perhaps cut the most in the English version. Erika Miklosa, in her imposing headdress, easily tossed off the Queen of the Nights Fs _ her two arias weren't cut at all.
Morris Robinson sang Sarastro on Friday, and the American bass sounded far more comfortable in the English version than he did in the German last season. Rene Pape sang Sarastro at the Met for the first time in Thursday night's German performance, then sang it in English on Saturday. He added a gravitas to the role, and while a German accent was evident, he brings a greatness to every role he performs.
The family version was conceived in the final years of Joseph Volpe's run as Met general manager and Peter Gelb, who took over in August, said a new production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" will be next season's holiday offering. While Gelb plans to rotate "The Magic Flute" and "Hansel and Gretel" as holiday offerings, he should consider broadening the project. Many children no doubt would love to hear cut-down English versions of other favorites, such as "The Barber of Seville" and "Carmen."
On Saturday, Taymor and Gelb watched the high-definition simulcast from the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center before hustling across the street during the final scene so Taymor could make it on stage for the curtain calls. There were some glitches at the start of the simulcast, with the timing of the subtitles slightly off, but the sharpness of the subtitles got better as the opera went on.
The performances were the first English-language versions of Mozart's masterpiece staged by the company at the Met since 1977.
Five additional operas are scheduled for Saturday afternoon simulcasts, with Bellini's "I Puritani" (Jan. 6) and Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" (Jan. 13) up next. In addition, there will be an encore of "The Magic Flute" in theaters on Jan. 23, a day before it is televised by PBS.
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