Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Lost Season, December 2020-January 2021: Die Zauberflöte

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New Year’s Eve 2020 promised a gala audience the first night of a new production of Die Zauberflöte and a celebrated conductor in just his second engagement at the Met. The very popular Mozart opera was not to be the abridged English-language version typically offered during the holiday season but the full-length version in German. The director, making his Met debut, was to be Simon McBurney whose staging had premiered in Amsterdam. And the conductor, perhaps today’s most renowned maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and lately announced also as the next music director of the Paris Opéra. The New Year’s patrons would have enjoyed a particularly good view of “The Dude,” as McBurney’s design called for a raised pit.

Although Die Zauberflöte stands high in the list of operas most often performed in the Met’s history—20th in rank, just after Tristan und Isolde—the company presented this title only sporadically between 1900 and 1942 when, foregrounding the appeal to a young audience and long sections of spoken dialogue, the text was given in English as The Magic Flute. Conductor Bruno Walter lent his prestige and his affinity for Mozart to the project. The fairy tale opera has maintained its place in the Met’s core repertoire since then. Walter led the next new production in 1956. The original German text, not heard since 1926, returned with the highly acclaimed Marc Chagall décor first seen in the opening season at Lincoln Center, 1966-67, conducted by Josef Krips. General manager Joseph Volpe cancelled the production announced for 1991, pleading insufficient time for preparation and borrowed instead David Hockney’s sets commissioned by San Francisco. Audiences and critics adored Julie Taymor’s puppets and masks and George Tsypin’s kinetic, fantastic world in 2004.

The first Zauberflöte excerpt in this post is drawn from a 1966 Berlin concert performance. The Tamino, Fritz Wunderlich, died in a tragic accident just weeks before his scheduled Met debut that very year. His technical and stylistic perfection, along with an exceptionally beautiful timbre, positioned Wunderlich as the foremost Mozart tenor of the post-war generation. In the aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This Image Is Enchantingly Lovely),” Tamino falls in love with Pamina while gazing at her portrait.

In Act II, the evil Queen of the Night beseeches her daughter, Pamina, to murder the virtuous high priest, Sarastro, who presides over a peaceful brotherhood of worshippers. Her daunting aria, “Der Hölle Rache (Hell’s Vengeance),” demands the agility and extended high range of the coloratura soprano (four F’s above high C) and the power of a dramatic soprano. Cristina Deutekom, in a 1971 TV movie, exhibits that rare combination.

Sarastro voices his benevolence in a serene hymn to his temple, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen (Within these Sacred Halls).” The customary province of the deep bass, the basso profundo, René Pape’s more lyric basso cantante executes the long phrases in an unbroken stream of sound. This 2006 recording is conducted by Claudio Abbado.

The despairing Pamina, believing that Tamino no longer loves her, contemplates suicide in the doleful “Ach, ich fühl's (Ah, I can feel it).” Here, in a performance from the 1956 Salzburg festival, Elisabeth Grümmer, a Mozart-Strauss specialist who sang all too rarely in the United States, spins out the aria in a seamless legato that plumbs the character’s infinite sadness.


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