The Mechanical Flute


In September 1791, a sickly Mozart conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute. Something about the mix of fairy tale magic, humor, and the sunny, eternally catchy music made the opera a huge hit. It has remained this way ever after. Audiences loved it then and love it now.

It takes a lot for me to dislike a performance of The Magic Flute/Die Zauberflöte. The new production by Simon McBurney (as opposed to the abbreviated holiday version of the Julie Taymor production trotted out nearly every year) was high on my list of most anticipated events of the 22-23 season.

The solo flutist, photo @ Karen Almond
The evening was, however, decidedly unmagical. Simon McBurney's production (which has actually been around since 2012 and staged throughout Europe) seems determined to display all the mechanics behind the magic. We walk in and see two booths on either side of the stage. On one side is the video projection artist. On the other side is the sound effects specialist. After awhile, eyes wandered to them whenever there was a "special" effect. The solo flute and glockenspiel player are a prominent part of the staging. Again, it takes away from the magic to know exactly how those sounds are being produced.

McBurney decided to raise the orchestra pit so they were almost on eye level with the stage. In a NYTimes article, conductor Nathalie Stutzmann explained the reasons why. It would have been this way in Mozart's time, for one. Good solid reasons, except for the fact that a raised orchestra upsets the voice/orchestra balance in a big house like the Met`. The conducting of Stutzmann was a highlight. She led a very taut, crisp reading of the score.  The dialogue was loudly amplified throughout the hall.

Sarastro's realm, photo @ Karen Almond
McBurney's staging for the singers is considerably more mundane. The singers are on a suspended movable platform, and there are projections in the background, Robert LePage Machine-style. Sometimes the singers break the fourth wall by running into the audience or leaving the auditorium. McBurney has taken out the Egyptian setting and also the colorful visuals that are a part of most Magic Flute productions. Instead, we live in a world of black and gray. Sarastro's realm seems to be a corporate headquarters, the Queen of the Night is a rather feral creature in a wheelchair, the three boys are emaciated, skeletal old men, etc. The overall effect is rather chilly. However, I actually didn't have a problem with most of the staging for the actual singers. And there are some lovely moments, like the Pamina and Tamina being suspended on wires and "swimming" through the water challenge. It was a legitimate interpretation. I just found the rest of the production gimmicky and unmagical.

Morley and Thomas Oliemans, photo @ Karen Almond
So I didn't like the production, but with a strong vocal cast I probably could have overlooked it. Alas, my chief objection for the night was the voices. So many times I thought "is this really the best they could find?"

There is one exception. Erin Morley (Pamina) was enchanting. Her sweet, crystalline lyric soprano fit the music like a glove. Her big aria "Ach, ich fühls" was exquisite and decorated with lovely appoggiatura. Dramatically she was winning, a nice combination of innocent and spunky. 

Brownlee and the Three Ladies, pjhoto @ Karen Almond
But the rest of the cast was a combination of miscast or just flat out unimpressive. Lawrence Brownlee was a poor fit for Tamino. He can sing difficult coloratura arias by Rossini and Bellini with no issues, but the simpler vocal lines for Tamino defeated him. For one, the best part of his voice is his incredible upper register (he is one of the only tenors I've ever heard attempt the high F in "Credeasi misera" live.) Tamino's music lives in the middle voice. He sounded weak and underpowered, especially in the famous portrait aria. His acting was also extremely wooden. Great singer, wrong role. 

Thomas Oliemans played the crowd-pleasing role of Papageno. He acted it very well, but his actual voice was less endearing. Another one of those baritones without much body in the voice. However, the good thing was McBurney was least interventionist with Papageno, and as a result I could sit back and enjoy all the Papageno antics like I'd normally do. I did find the business of actors waving pieces of paper to represent Papageno's birds tiresome, and I also found Papageno urinating into a bottle unnecessary.

Kathryn Lewek and Morley, photo @ Karen Almond
Sarastro was another puzzling choice. Stephen Milling had a hollow bass voice that lacked both gravitas and resonance. "O Isis und Osiris" made almost no impact. Kathryn Lewek has been singing the Queen of the Night around the world for years. If you look at her operabase, it is pretty much all she sings. Her voice is rather harsh around the edges, but it has the strength to power through the Queen's two big arias. As for the famous high F's in "Der Hölle Rache," they were painfully out of tune. My favorite of the supporting singers was actually Brenton Ryan as the evil Monostatos. He was fun to watch and threw himself into the role. Even the Three Ladies were not all that harmonious in their sound.

The good news was that the audience absolutely loved it. Simon McBurney's creative team received big cheers. I'm sure most of the audience will call me curmudgeonly for this review. Which is good. Mozart always wins. It just was not my cup of tea.

By the way, I did not review the production of Terence Blanchard's Champion, but I did see one of the final performances of the run and loved it. Maybe that's because I knew the story of Emile Griffith and Benny Paret, and also have a strange fascination with the brutal world of professional boxing. I found Champion to be a much stronger work than Fire Shut Up In My Bones (which I also liked). Touching story, beautiful music, wonderfully cast through and through, engaging production. The duet between Emile and Benny's son wrung tears. Bravo to all.


  1. In listening opening night, I was interested in skipping The art museum that afternoon and going to Flute. I agree on all the voices, and quite frankly was going to see and hear Erin, and maybe the very different production. Now I'm thinking I'll go to the museum and High Line walk, and just stick to my plan of The Dutchman that night before driving home. I will see the HD, and so somewhat see the staging.

  2. I agree, it was highly disappointing. Black & gray sets are over rated, and a floating board with florescent lights can hardly be called a set...I should have walked the Highline and skipped this one.

    Loved Champion 🏆


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