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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Die Zauberflöte

We test the theory that everything is funnier in German.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kathryn Lewek is the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
Photo by Ken Howard © The Metropolitan Opera.
James Levine continues his tour of the great Mozart operas with the composer's last work. Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") is part knockabout comedy, part love story and part sacred mystical journey into enlightenment for its young hero. This is the uncut version of the opera, sung in German. (A shorter version in English will be offered in December, geared toward a younger audience.)

What is Die Zauberflöte?
The Magic Flute is a unique work. It is a happy alchemy of Mozart’s music, the mystic beliefs of the Masonic lodge that claimed both the composer and librettist Emmanuel Schickaneder as members, and a serious German opera that also happens to contain some of the finest folk-like songs in Mozart’s catalogue.

What's Die Zauberflöte about?
This is the story of a prince, Tamino on a quest, first to rescue Pamina from the clutches of the wizard Sarastro. He then changes tack, seeking to achieve wisdom and self-knowledge in joining Sarastro's order. Along the way he is accompanied by the cheerful Papageno, a bird-catcher whose appetites run more toward wine, women, song and the occasional bit of comic relief.

What's the music like?
Sublime. Mozart wrote with a new kind of freedom in this opera, combining Papageno's little folk tunes, virtuoso arias for the main characters (that are themselves parody of 18th century style) and choruses for the Priests. All are memorable. This opera is a singspiel, with  spoken dialogue (in German) between the numbers, which may take a little getting used to but your ears will quickly adjust.

Who's in it?
For this run of performances, Mr. Levine has assembled a roster of talented young singers. Golda Schultz is Pamina. Kathryn Lewek returns as the Queen of the Night. Charles Castronovo is the prince Tamino. Markus Werba is Papageno. The key role of Sarastro will be sung by Tobias Kehrer, with one performance on Oct. 14 featuring the great René Pape.

How's the production?
Since it opened, Julie Taymor's production of Die Zauberflöte has been one of the Metropolitan Opera's most consistently popular shows. Ms. Taymor's staging combines an enormous Lucite set, lighting effects and Indonesian-style puppetry to create bears, dragons and all manner of creatures for the audience's delight. Other than the puppetry, this imaginative show has something to please almost any listener.

Why should I see it?
James Levine is conducting, first of all. Second, that the Met does Flute frequently in English but performances of the (complete) German text are far more infrequent. The German lends something to the sound and construction of the arias, especially in big numbers like "Die Bildnis," "Bei mannern" and "Die hölle Rache."

When does it open?
Die Zauberflöte returns to the Metropolitan Opera on Sept. 27. An English-language "family friendly" revival will open Nov. 25 as The Magic Flute.

Where can 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.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
Yes, it's the second one of the year. It is on Oct. 14 which is why René Pape is singing in that particular performance and it starts at 12:55pm Eastern Time.

Which recording should I get?

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon 1964)
A longtime favorite, this recording should be heard for the four stellar leads that adorn it and Böhm’s propulsive, no-frills approach to the score. The cast includes the legendary Fritz Wunderlich, a tenor who left too few recordings as he died young, paired with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno. The female leads are Evelyn Lear and Roberta Peters, whose Queen of the Night is a bit of an acquired taste. Franz Crass is a decent Sarastro.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI/WBC 1972)
This was a good idea: an idiomatic recording of the opera with an all-German cast and the great Wagner conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch proving his mettle in Mozart. Underrated and usually available at a bargain-basement price. And the cast includes Kurt Moll as Sarastro, a role the German bass would own for many years.

Drottingholm Court Theatre cond. Arnold Östman (l’oiseau lyre/Decca 1992)
The early 1990s were a time when the big record companies were eager to record and re-record the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their contemporaries on so-called “period” instruments, observing tempo choices and performance practices from the 18th century. This set, with a stellar cast of singers that includes Korean songbird Sumi Jo as a fiery Queen of the Night. This is the best “period” recording of the opera from that era.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.