In The Met's New Production of The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night Uses a Wheelchair | Playbill

Classic Arts Features In The Met's New Production of The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night Uses a Wheelchair

Inside Simon McBurney and Nathalie Stutzmann new, off-kilter version of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.

Seth Morris and Lawrence Brownlee in Die Zauberflöte Karen Almond / Met Opera

Led by soprano Erin Morley and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the wildly creative new production is a journey of wisdom, love, and light that leaves audiences in today’s troubled world with a glimpse of a more hopeful future.

Premiered in 1791, Die Zauberflöte wasn’t created for aristocrats or presented at a fancy court theatre. Instead, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder introduced it at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden, a venue for the common people who cried for the heroine and sang along with the comedian. No doubt the first-night audience came away utterly exhilarated and convinced that all was right with the world. Audiences everywhere have felt that way ever since.

With brilliant imagination, director Simon McBurney’s production—equal parts mystery, drama, comedy, and romance—carries on the Met’s long tradition of memorable Flutes, among them those designed by legendary artists Marc Chagall and David Hockney. More recently, theater artist extraordinaire Julie Taymor’s staging has been seen in 14 Met seasons since its 2004 premiere. (For the holidays, the Met will still present the Taymor production in its abridged English-language version).

McBurney has directed on Broadway (The Chairs, All My Sons, The Encounter),and in London, he’s co-founder and artistic director of Complicité, one of Britain’s most adventurous theater companies. An actor in major films—from The Theory of Everything to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1—he’s also been featured in television’s Rev (BBC) and The Borgias (Showtime). When it premiered at London’s English National Opera in 2013, his Zauberflöte production triumphed, hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “the best production I’ve ever witnessed of Mozart’s last opera.”

Die Zauberflöte’s often harrowing but ultimately triumphant journey to enlightenment inspires McBurney. “Society should evolve,” he says. “What kind of society are we moving towards? How do we transform the consciousness of the audience?” At the heart of Flute, says the director, is that “Mozart himself is meditating on the idea that music itself changes consciousness. A few of those thoughts have infiltrated what we’re trying to do.”

The production mixes projections, physical comedy, aerial and sound effects, and choreography to riveting effect. A central element of the set is what The Guardian has described as a “wobbling, tilting, swinging, hovering platform,” creating “a visual metaphor for humanity in crisis.” It’s also important to McBurney to let the audience in on the theatrical magic. For example, there’s a Foley sound artist on stage, working to create effects in a structure that critics reviewing the production have likened to a kitchenette. The orchestra gets involved, too. The pit is raised high enough to bring certain players into the action, as when Papageno interacts with the celesta player during his endearing second aria.

Inevitably, every Flute audience looks forward to seeing how the opera’s extravagantly self-dramatizing Queen of the Night will be presented. In McBurney’s production, she wields a cane and, in her venge ancearia, propels herself furiously in a wheelchair, both props emphasizing her increasing powerlessness. (McBurney adds to the opera’s essential humanity by having Sarastro actually reconcile with the Queen, which has rarely occurred in any previous Flute staging.)

Kathryn Lewek and Erin Morley in Die Zauberflöte Karen Almond / Met Opera

Among McBurney’s exceptional collaborators for this production is Michael Levinewho designed the sets of much-acclaimed Met productions directed by Robert Carsen (Boito’s Mefistofele, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), Anthony Minghella (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), and François Girard (Wagner’s Parsifal). Others in the creative team are similarly distinguished, including Nicky Gillibrand (making her Met debut designing the costumes), Jean Kalman (lighting), and Finn Ross (projections). McBurney, a 1998 Olivier Award winner for choreographing The Caucasian Chalk Circle at London’s Royal National Theatre, has choreographed Flute himself.

Steering the production musically will be one of the most electrifying figures on today’s classical-music scene: conductor Nathalie Stutzmann, who will have debuted at the Met only two weeks previously, leading the new production of Mozart’s Don GiovanniAfter more than three decades as one of the most celebrated contraltos of our time, Stutzmann is achieving equal renown on the podium. Newly appointed music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, she’s also guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and chief conductor of Norway’s Kristians and Symphony Orchestra.

The Met has always boasted magnificent Flute casts, and this season is no exception. Silver-voiced soprano Erin Morley, who reprises her Pamina (heard here in the 2018–19 season), has dazzled the house in both lyric and coloratura parts, from Gildato Olympia, Sophie, and the title role of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice in last year’s Met premiere. Opposite her as Tamino—his first Met appearance in Mozart—is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who starred with the company most recently in Rossini’s La Donnadel Lago and is revered worldwide as one of today’s greatest exponents of bel canto repertoire.

The opera’s two antagonists have been cast with today’s definitive interpreters: coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek, the most frequent Queen of the Night in Met history (44 performances to date), and world-renowned Danish bass Stephen Milling, whose majestic Sarastro was first heard at the Met in 2006. And in his company debut as Papageno, Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans brings irresistible singing and comic flair.

With all these elements in place, the Met stage is set for the arrival of an enchanting, exhilarating and—yes—truly magical production. “We have to assume that Mozart put something very deeply of himself in this,” McBurney continues. “The opera came out just after the French Revolution. All of Europe was changing. Everything was in a political ferment. Mozart was dying, but he was at the height of his powers. The Magic Flute is both fantastic and political, both a social comment and a great flight of the imagination. With this production, I wanted to be sure to listen to its own beating heart.”

See Production Photos of Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera

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