JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Die Zauberflote (Conductor: James Levine) - September 30, 2004
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Die Zauberflote

The Magic Flute

3.5 3.5
169 min.

The magic's in the voices

Be wary of critics:
“The new mechanical comedy Die Zauberflöte, with music by our choirmaster Mozart, which is presented at great expense and with much splendour of scenery and costumes, has not won the hoped-for acclaim, on account of its inferior text and subject matter.”

—review of the 1791 première in the Berlin publication Musikalisches Wochenblatt

Two hundred years later (part of the Mozart bi-centennial year) the Metropolitan Opera put together a stellar cast and production team for its telecast of Mozart’s Masonic masterpiece whose libretto weighs in more on the side of philosophy than fairytale. The result is more pleasing to the ear than the eye, but a splendid point of entry into the world of opera for the neophyte.

It is a noble, though near-impossible challenge to capture one art form for use in another. Attending the opera, the audience chooses for itself which image to focus on. Once cameras are involved, the viewers are forced to “see” only what the director chooses to show. Brian Large takes a thoughtful approach, pulling back for many wide shots in order to allow the full effect of David Hockney’s wonderful sets (particularly the brilliant Temple of the Sun). Naturally, his images cannot dart about as fast as the eye, leaving an impression that the action drags—a notion that likely wouldn’t occur to those in the hall.

James Levine gives a typically energetic reading of the score, keeping everything moving forward with surety if not perfect ensemble between his marvellous band and the stage, or occasionally within the orchestra itself. Few conductors other than the likes of George Szell or Karl Böhm have been able to deliver the miraculous inner beauty that lurks intriguingly on every page of the score.

It’s the voices that so incredibly bring this musical discourse on darkness and light to the high altar of art.

Manfred Hemm’s Papageno is a joy from start to finish. His versatile baritone is a constant pleasure and he is by far the most successful actor, realizing that the camera will bring his face closer to the broadcast audience than most of the Met’s patrons.

As Sarastro, Kurt Moll uses his rich, perfectly controlled tone to shape Mozart’s taxing lines and effortlessly plumb the depths of low F, more than making up for his somewhat stilted stage presence. No one minds: Artist at Work.

Kathleen Battle’s flexibility and power make her an ideal Pamina, convincingly looking the part of the over-protected daughter. As her suitor, Francisco Araiza delivers the vocal challenges with conviction, but in close-up appears more of a father figure than a portrait-smitten lover.

The Queen of the Night has a compelling advocate in Luciana Serra. Her journeys to the arpeggiated stratosphere are nearly picture perfect and her demeanour is deliciously evil.

The Three Boys sing well but seem as tight as their leggings in their few bits of business. Still, it’s fabulous to see them float on wires above the stage. Equally fun is the effective use of trapdoors for split-second exits. With all of the gadgetry available, it is reassuring to see the kind of “special effects” available in Mozart’s day are still in use centuries later.

The on-stage use of the “magic” flute and the spell-inducing bells has both musical and dramatic importance. Disappointing, then, to see Tamino attempt to play very little, but, instead, be directed to hold his instrument up like a magic wand. More unsettling was Papageno’s glockenspiel, which worked on a crank. Sometimes he was turning away merrily, yet nothing was heard—at others the box played itself. Again, with cameras so close, a more consistent solution is needed to encourage our suspension of disbelief—especially when many thousands of first-time viewers may be contemplating a live excursion to Western music’s most precious art form. JWR

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