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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: The Magic Flute

The birdcatcher returns to the Met to enchant the kids in Mozart's family-friendly fable.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christopher Maltman returns to the role of Papageno in this year's revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met offers up this year's holiday production, a shorter English-language version of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Apparently, some bloggers have jokingly dubbed this version of the opera The Magic Piccolo.  The nerve of some people...

What is The Magic Flute?
This is Mozart's last opera, written not for the court theater but for the popular theater in Vienna managed by his friend Emanuel Schickenader. It mixes different musical styles together but from the whizzing overture to the majestic final chorus, it remains one of Mozart's most enduring and popular works. This year, the Met performs its 90-minute one-act version oriented toward young listeners.

What's The Magic Flute about?
Tamino, a young prince, goes on a series of quests, first to rescue the maid Pamina from the clutches of the wizard Sarastro. When he learns that Sarastro and his order are on the side of light and virtue, the prince and his sidekick Papageno go on a quest. Tamino wants to join the order of the priests, with Pamina at his side. Papageno wants a good meal, a bottle of wine, and a lovely mate to raise a flock with.

Why should I go see The Magic Flute?
This is a perfect introduction to the opera for young people, compressed into a lean 90 minutes. If you have kids interested in the arts, there is nothing more visually stimulating or musically heart-warming than Mozart's final score. Flute combines traditional show-stopping arias with less conventional comic numbers delivered by the bird-catcher Papageno. These have become some of Mozart's most popular tunes.

Who's in it?
This year's Flute features the charismatic baritone Christopher Maltman as Papageno, surrounded by a cast of young singers. They are led by tenor Ben Bliss as the heroic Tamino and bass Morris Robinson (one of the biggest voices in his range) as the priest Sarastro. Layla Claire is Pamina, the object of Tamino's quest who becomes a character in her own right. The Queen of the Night's two arias will be sung by a pair of sopranos, with Jessica Pratt and Kathryn Lewek platooning in this short but difficult role. Antony Walker conducts all performances.

How's the production?
This is Julie Taymor's lone production for the Metropolitan Opera, and one of the maverick Broadway director's most inspired creations. The birds, bears and beasts spring to vivid life as shadow puppets, lending color and distinct visual style to Tamino's quest for personal and spiritual enlightenment. This is a shorter English-language version of The Magic Flute. As this is a singspiel, the music will stop for spoken dialogue between numbers.

When does The Magic Flute open?
The opera returns to the Met repertory on Dec. 20. Please note that matinee performances are offered throughout the holiday season.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recordings do you recommend?
There are a flood of recordings of Flute. Singers, conductors and sound engineers scrambled to leave their mark on this beloved opera and its colorful characters. Here are three that are exceptional. Sorry, they're all in German. Because this opera is better in German. It just is. Funnier too.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Otto Klemperer (EMI/WBC 1960)
Otto Klemperer's muscular approach to Mozart isn't for everyone. But the German conductor knows the score inside and out and commands a great cast on this recording made for EMI. The opening chords of the overture have Beethoven-like weight and the scene with the Two Men in Armor (cut from this current Met staging) has the power to send chills down your spine. (Maybe that's why it was cut.) Klemperer has an all-star cast with Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Gottlob Frick, Lucia Popp and Walter Berry leading the way.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Karl Böhm (DG, 1964)
And you thought the cast for the Klemperer version was good. (It is.) This one is better! Fritz Wunderlich, Roberta Peters, Evelyn Lear, Franz Crass and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau are the four heavyweight reasons to hear this light-footed Flute, a DG recording that is always my first recommendation to people who want to get to know the opera better. Some of the spoken dialogue is included, with a few judicious cuts.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, 1995)
Modern digital sound and period instruments with the opera played at a break-neck tempo. The last and the best of the Gardiner Mozart series and a coming-out party for star baritone Gerald Finley.

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