One little-noted hazard of the alleged graying of the concert-going population is that you’re much more likely to be killed crossing the street before and especially after concerts, when all the cranky old people with night-blindness are running red lights to get home in time for that night’s Matlock re-run. That’s the sort of thing that put me in a foul mood both before and after the recent Magic Flute (and let me admit I’m also not as spry as I used to be). The opera itself was like a sweet oasis, something to look back on with pleasure as I resumed trekking through the dry wastes. I used to have this experience when I started going to San Francisco Opera: I would walk up Market Street, and always just as the sordid filth and craziness was making me feel like Travis Bickle the Opera House would appear.
I had seen this Gerald Scarfe production a few years back in DC at the National Opera. It holds up very well. It's colorful and fantastical without being too cartoony, and it strikes a good balance between beauty and whimsy. To me this production avoided the whole awkward Monostatos the evil dark-skinned would-be rapist thing quite neatly by making him a frog-like bright green, but check out Campbell Vertesi’s write-up for a very different reaction. The conglomerate creatures drawn forth when Tamino first plays his flute justifiably bring down the house (the biggest hit always seems to be the little alligator-headed penguin in his Converse Hightops), but I did talk to someone who really objected to this scene because it distracts from what Tamino is singing. I see his point, but I still find it within the acceptable range of theatrical effects. To run down the list, I thought Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night was a little underpowered in her first aria, though that might just have been a side effect of being suspended mid-air while singing it, since she blazed through her Act 2 aria. Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro was basically fine but seemed a bit lightweight to me, which is too bad for me since his Act 2 aria about vengeance being forbidden within these hallowed halls is one of my favorite moments in the opera. Piotr Beczala and Dina Kuznetsova were the appealing and lyrical Tamino and Pamina; I particularly liked her plangent pianissimos. Often there’s a point when Papageno starts to get on my nerves, the way someone who is ostentatiously a regular guy would, but Christopher Maltman kept the character funny and charming. But I did miss the hilarious little moment from the DC production when Papageno (Rod Gilfry) slicked back his head-feathers upon meeting Papagena out of her old-lady disguise.
I’ve always thought that the Magic Flute would be a good introductory opera, since it contains just about every type of operatic situation or mood, and is furthermore a work on the highest level; you’re not talking down to someone, no matter what his or her age or interest, by leading him or her Flute-ward. Apparently I’m not the only one who has noticed this, since there seems to be a push among opera houses to turn the Magic Flute into the sort of family-friendly cash cow that ballet companies have in the Nutcracker. My godson told me that radio ads were marketing it to video gamers as a fantasy quest. I said, Sure, but did they also tell you it’s in German and lasts over three hours? And that the hero enters being chased by a big snake and immediately faints, and has to be rescued by three women who then sing about how pretty he is, and that it’s actually his goofy sidekick who saves the girl, and later his vow of silence keeps him from saving his girl from despair? Not quite the manly avatar most gamers go for, but I was reminded of how deeply weird the Magic Flute really is. The amazing thing is, you accept all of this while you’re watching it, and the even more amazing thing is that the whole mishmash forms a coherent work, thanks no doubt to Mozart’s gorgeous music, which illuminates low farce and high tragedy with an identical radiance that becomes wisdom.
I don’t think that most opera plots are ridiculous or incoherent, despite their reputation, but the Magic Flute does take a lot of puzzling out, or, if you prefer, has the deep dreamlike logic of a fairy tale. Why do the Three Ladies give good advice and help at one point and then try to obstruct Tamino and Papageno at another? The Queen of the Night is evil yet a loving mother – or does she just want Pamina to steal back the disc of the sun for her? What’s the deal with the disc anyway? It seems even less effective than Alberich’s ring. Why is Monostatos hanging around in the enlightened court of Sarastro, or being allowed to hang out there? And shouldn’t that enlightened ruler have more effective punishments than beating the soles of the feet? I don’t think Masonic symbolism is really that important to understanding the Magic Flute, and it’s probably best for us not to pursue too far its division between enlightened/male/white and destructive/female/dark energies. The Magic Flute’s very contradictions and confusions are what provide the audience with the most realistic picture of what it’s like to puzzle one’s way through the moral confusions of the world.