Metropolitan Opera 2017-18 Review – Die Zauberflöte: James Levine Leads a Solid Cast in Mozart’s Enigmatic Masterpiece

By Greg Moomjy

On September 27, 2017, the Metropolitan Opera revived its Julie Taymor production of “Die Zauberflöte.”  Her take on this beloved classic, complete with puppets and dancing flamingos, is a treasured relic of the Volpe era and this revival received the star treatment. James Levine, the Met’s music director emeritus, was in the pit while coloratura Kathryn Lewek offered her world-famous take on the small but crucial role of the Queen of the Night.

An Enigmatic Masterwork

Dating from 1791, “Die Zauberflöte” has made a name for itself as a great opera for children and newcomers to the genre. This is certainly true, yet to view the work as a simple children’s fairy tale is a one-sided approach. To this day, the opera actually remains one of the most enigmatic works in the repertoire. The battle between the Queen of the Night and the priest Sarastro exerts pressure on the relationship between Prince Tamino and Princess Pamina. This fight for control of the sun is viewed by scholars as anything from a parable of the Freemasons to a defense of the French Revolution and its ideals. With each new interpretation, the characters take on new meaning. The Queen of the Night herself can be seen either as a representation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, responsible for basic human needs, like food, shelter, and sex or as an allusion to the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740-1780) who symbolized absolute monarchy. In this light, the Queen’s downfall can be seen as the triumph of personal liberty over rule by the aristocracy.  Julie Taymor’s production, which premiered at the Met in 2004,  emphasizes the opera’s mystical journey. The puppets, constructed by Michael Curry Design Inc, and the costumes, designed by Mary Peterson, provide color, yet the dark set with a combination of mystical symbols and geometric figures, heightens the mystery of the plot while nodding to the influence of the Freemasons.

Musically Mozart dramatizes the battle between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night in telling ways. Sarastro and his fellow priests have music that perfectly reflects 18th-century classism. Scholars point to the influence of late baroque composers like Bach and Handel. On the other hand, the Queen of the Night’s fiendish coloratura is almost taken for granted by today’s audiences, yet it reflects her extreme volatility and inability to master emotions. Tamino and Pamina occupy a middle ground. Their music follows the typical patterns of the classical era, yet at the same time, they can indulge in emotional expression.

Cohesive Musical Team

James Levine accurately portrayed this dichotomy. He led the Met Orchestra in a reading that was equal parts stately elegance and brimming with life. Of special note was how he interpreted the beginning of the overture. His delicate handling of the opening chordal progression was just enough to show the intricacies of Mozart’s counterpoint before diving into the exciting spritely music that the overture is known for.

In general, the cast worked as a cohesive team. This opera is replete with famous arias like Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” and the Queen’s “Der Hölle Rache,” yet the piece is also built on ensembles. In this regard, each member of the cast was a true team player and all voices blended seamlessly with each other.

Making her debut the soprano Golda Schultz was a note-worthy Pamina. Her singing highlighted both her voice’s silvery upper register and velvety bottom register. She was especially adept at producing sustained tone, as when she meets Tamino just before embarking on the trials of fire and water in the second act.

As Tamino Charles Castronovo was one of the sturdier tenors to inhabit the role. His burnished tones lent a sense of strength and nobility to the role.

Kathryn Lewek has sung the Queen of the Night all over the world. It’s a joy to know she got a chance to bring this feisty operatic monarch to the Met. Despite how well known the role is, it is no exaggeration to say the part is unforgiving.The queen has mythic stature, yet her role is very small and confined to two of the most difficult arias in all of opera. It is even trickier to avoid the temptation to strictly emphasize the beauty of her music. Yes, she’s a coloratura and coloratura’s can be angelic, but the Queen of the Night is someone not to be toyed with. Lewek brought out all of these different sides of the Queen, yet perhaps the crowning achievement of her performance was this monarch’s vulnerability. This was shown most in the arioso, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” before her first Aria. Lastly Lewek’s high Fs really stood out, especially at the end of her Act one Aria. It was thrilling to hear an appoggiatura in that note. By managing to hold the high F, she made its arrival all the more satisfying.

As Sarastro, Tobias Kehrer demonstrated his profound bass-baritone. Much like with Castronovo, his ability to produce sustained tone made his arias a joy to listen to.

The rest of the cast was made of superb character actors. Greg Fedderly in the role of Monostatos, the Queen’s slave, who goes undercover in Sarastro’s temple, played the part as a villain in a cheesy superhero TV show, perhaps even the Penguin.

In collaboration with Markus Werba’s Papageno, Fedderly made the dialogue come alive with spectacular comic timing. Werba displayed a strong baritone but even so, the highlight of his performance came in a brief exchange of dialogue when Papageno meets Pamina in Act I, Werba introduced himself to the princess as “Geno, Papageno”. As his much sought-for mate Papagena, Ashley Emerson possessed a smooth soprano voice. She is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and certainly someone to watch.

Overall, it was a night one might expect from Mozart’s famed opera and continues to hint at a successful artistic season for the Met.


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