For purists from either camp, mixing opera and commercial entertainment might sound like an act of artistic vandalism. Puppets towering perhaps 20 feet, and a visual aesthetic that quotes from several decades of animation, might not seem like what Mozart needs in our already over-Disneyfied world. But in fact, Julie Taymor (in her Met debut) might be the best thing that has ever happened to The Magic Flute, and this is an opera touched by personalities no less strong than Marc Chagall, Maurice Sendak and, most recently at the Met, David Hockney.
Taymor's vision works because Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder beat her to the punch, setting out a fantastical rite-of-passage story that would be hard to give too preposterous a treatment.
It works because conductor James Levine, the Met Orchestra, and some quite good singers (and two superlative ones) keep the music-making operating on only the highest levels.
And this new production soars in many moments because Taymor has figured out a way to utilize costumes and puppets as proxies for certain emotions. This brings the visuals to a level of expressiveness that, since singers' faces have a much smaller reach than their voices, opera rarely achieves.
Take the bears in Act I. When Tamino plays his magic flute, six enormous white bears come out on stage and dance. Almost anyone will immediately recognize these figures as pure Taymor - made of materials that seem no more complex than white sheets and long sticks to control movement. But designed by Taymor with Michael Curry, and with masterly puppet operators, they bow heads and float their bodies in surprising and sensitive relation to the music.
Taymor expands the impact of the Queen of the Night by augmenting her already large costume with four enormous triangles of fabric - white wings that nearly invisible assistants move. They are not just flapping randomly, or even in time to the music, but in various configurations that somehow reflect what's going on in the queen's aria.
The costumes, which Taymor designed, are at once bizarre and familiar. Those birds - are they flamingos in Fantasia skirts? The Three Ladies are cloaked all in black except for white, Asian-influenced masks they hold over their heads as they sing. And when Papagena (sung superbly by Anna Christy, in a Met debut) is still appearing in the form of an old hag, she is in a costume straight out of Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Spirited Away: an Asian mask, and a heap of a body covered in shredded rags.
The centerpiece of the set, designed by George Tsypin, is a large, clear cube that rotates to reveal openings in various shapes. Light sculptures are everywhere, reminiscent of light shows of the 1960s and '70s. Masonic imagery is scattered about in kinetic form. There's almost nothing naturalistic about the production. Taymor and Tsypin have created a world disconnected from time and geography, putting the story in the most abstract setting it could probably hold.
If there are two singers who were able to communicate subtlety and emotion in the big opera house, they were soprano Dorothea Rschmann as Pamina and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Tamino. Soprano L'ubica Vargicov made her Met debut as the Queen of the Night with impressive accuracy. Rodion Pogossov was a suitably puckish Papageno; Kwangchul Youn as Sarastro had trouble putting out enough sound in his extreme low register.
It does seem inevitable that the singing plays second fiddle to the production, at least, if audience chatter is any judge. "You know, she's the one who did Lion King," blasted one woman into her cell phone on Lincoln Center plaza just before curtain time. But with this Die Zauberflte Taymor does a great service to opera. Nothing she has created distracts from the music, except perhaps for the snoring-husband demographic that might not have been fully engaged anyway. And for him and others like him, the visuals are an entry point, and opera can never have too much of that.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.
Music by Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. Production, costumes, puppets and stage direction by Julie Taymor, sets by George Tsypin, lighting by Donald Holder. At the Metropolitan Opera Oct. 15, 18 and 21, and April 8, 13, 16, 20 and 23. Tickets are $26-$200. Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metopera.org.