When it was first announced about a year and a half ago that the Met would produce a ninety-minute version of Die Zauberflöte, opera maven extraordinaire and blogger La Cieca (James Jorden) of Parterre Box wrote:
Now, about the Met's plans for a tab version of Magic Flute in the Julie Taymor production. La Cieca says, "Oh, why the hell not?" Somehow La Cieca feels that a 90-minute, fast-moving entertainment is a lot closer to Mozart's original intention than the three-hour plus behemoth the Met delivers when they do the Gesamt version.
To which I replied on this blog:
I suggest that if Mozart's original intention for Zauberflöte was to write a "90-minute, fast-moving entertainment," he would have written a 90-minute, fast-moving entertainment rather than what he did write: a transcendent, two-act, three-hour, Singspiel that's among the most sublime works of art in all of music.
In answer to an eMail from La Cieca in response to that comment, I replied further (_Z_ is, of course, Zauberflöte):
My points are several.
First, it's the *Met* we're here talking about. I could, for instance, understand, and perhaps excuse, a "tab" _Z_ produced by some provincial house or off-mainstream venue for any number of practical reasons, but never by the Met. The Met's an "Opera House Of Record", so to speak, and such a gross disfigurement of any work, much less of a masterpiece such as _Z_, is simply unacceptable and inexcusable. For the Met to justify such a production on the grounds that "a 90-minute, fast-moving entertainment is a lot closer to Mozart's original intention," or that it helps build young audiences, are both, and at best, rationalizations; ones that are, to not put too fine a point on it, simply absurd; the former for reasons that ought to be perfectly clear and inarguable; the latter because it's simply untrue.
The notion that a full version of _Z_ is incapable of holding the attention of a young audience, most especially in this new Taymor production, flies in the face of one of the things that makes _Z_ the transcendent masterpiece it is: its ability to capture the imagination of all manner of audiences, naïve and erudite, childlike and sophisticated equally. The only change that would be required for a young, naïve, and unsophisticated audience in this country is that the *spoken* parts be done in English rather than German. Any young audience that can sit through and be riveted by, say, one of the _Lord of The Rings_ movies, which dramatically, at its most naïve level, is way more complex and difficult than _Z_ at that same level, can handle and be engrossed by a well-done, full _Z_ with no difficulty whatsoever.
And the argument that no one loses by a cut _Z_ in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, the full version, is, I think, way shortsighted if not outright wrongheaded. The primary loser in such an arrangement is the very audience the cut _Z_ was intended to benefit, as what it gets is a fundamentally false idea of Mozart's masterpiece; one that's difficult to displace or rid oneself of later on as are first impressions of just about anything.
So, in short, I can think of no adequate or legitimate justification for a cut Met production of _Z_ in any circumstance, or for any reason whatsoever.
I've just now finished watching the tape of Wednesday's PBS telecast of the filmed Met Zauberflöte, er, Magic Flute, and my worst fears were ... not realized. I still stand by everything I said above, but this English-language "pocket" version of Magic Flute was not the unmitigated train wreck I imagined it would be.
First, the work was cut in length from just under three hours to just ten minutes shy of two, not to ninety minutes. Second — and with the brutal truncation of the overture, and the egregious omission of the second-act choruses, "O Isis und Osiris" and "Triumph, Triumph, Triumph" excepted — the cuts were done with intelligence and sensitivity, and the dramatic flow of the work left seamlessly intact.
Surprisingly, the new English-language text for this version (by J.D. McClatchy who created an entirely new text, not a translation of the original German) was absolutely first-rate, and after a quick recovery from the initial jolt of hearing English spoken and sung rather than German, the words came across as a quite natural part of the musical and dramatic fabric of the piece. A most impressive accomplishment, indeed.
As for the Julie Taymor staging, it was, well, magical. As I haven't seen her staging of the uncut Zauberflöte I can't make a comparison with this staging, but on its own this staging was often breathtaking and breathtakingly beautiful, and exactly the right kind of staging for a work like Flute. Especially breathtaking and breathtakingly beautiful was the staging of the Act I entrance and exit of the Queen of The Night, and impressive and eloquent if derivative (think, "I'm melting, I'm melting!") was the staging of the Act II dissolution of the up-to-no-good Queen and her entourage.
Was this a pristine Flute musically? It was not, but it wasn't chopped liver either thanks to solid if unremarkable performances from all the principal singers, especially from Erika Miklósa as the Queen, René Pape as Sarastro, and David Pittsinger as the Speaker. Delightful, too, was Nathan Gunn's Papageno which dramatically was the best realized role of this entire production. Most of all, however, this Flute was not chopped liver musically due to the Met orchestra, easily the best pit band in the business and the equal of many a top symphony orchestra, and to James Levine — the astonishing James Levine — who in his mature years has not only developed into a first-rate Wagner conductor, but a conductor of Mozart without peer today, and fully the equal of any of his legendary Mozartian predecessors.
Finally, the filming. I guess hugely frustrating is the best way to describe this filming by director Gary Halvorson. He apparently hasn't learned that one can't, generally speaking, freely employ without penalty the normal vocabulary of film when it's a live staged opera one is filming. Most particularly, one can't all but abandon the so-called establishing shot (i.e., the overall stage picture) and freely employ one of film's greatest strengths and biggest guns: the closeup. For one thing, and for the most part, opera singers are not meant to be seen that close up when working, and, Anna Netrebko notwithstanding, are far better appreciated seen from a respectful distance. For another, and singers aside, freely employing closeups and medium closeups with a work staged like Julie Taymor's Flute is positively destructive as it makes explicit, and draws out-of-context attention to, what's meant to be ambiguous, even enigmatic, in the overall stage picture, thereby destroying utterly the carefully staged and crafted illusion.
The Met, I think, needs to hire a top-notch and opera-experienced filmmaker for these filmed live productions as anything less serves to blunt — or, worse, sabotage — their very purpose.