Brilliant tribute to Mozart 'The Magic Flute' to air tonight on PBS


Mozart will not get a more beautiful tribute this year than the one tonight at 8 on Channels 22 and 67 when PBS broadcasts the current Metropolitan Opera production of the composer's "The Magic Flute" ("Die Zauberflote").

The most celebrated thing about this production -- which was taped last winter -- are the sets and designs by the British-born, California-based painter, designer and photographer David Hockney. Anyone who wants to test his television's capacity for color reproduction must tune in. Hockney's brilliant reds, blues and yellows are used to give this production an Egyptian look for its Masonic symbolism. The artist's pyramids, temples, palm trees, costumes and menagerie of mythical animals are wonderfully imagined. The drawback is that -- over the opera's three hours -- they become a little too busy and tiring to the eye.

The "Magic Flute" is arguably the greatest comic exploration of the battle between darkness and light. The evening's host, actor F. Murray Abraham, somewhat ingenuously calls it "my favorite opera." And this production is so wonderful musically that its visual preciousness never detracts from the musical values.

Even someone who isn't one of Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine's fans will probably admire the conductor's way with this piece. The overture is restlessly fast but its linearity does not eschew attention to the clamoring details. The interpretation continues in this straightforward, unfussy manner. In dramatic moments, like the Queen of the Night's arias, Levine is properly urgent; at slower tempos, he strikes the appropriate attitudes -- when the music calls for it -- of either relaxation or inner tension.

The singing is mostly very good -- and sometimes more than that. Kathleen Battle's celebrity gives her top billing as Pamina, which is actually the least important of the major roles. But it is impossible to quibble with her performance. She is a kittenish, coquettish, absolutely wonderful Pamina. Her performance is never affected: she is able to find the perfect mix of anguish and balance in her great aria and her singing has an easeful simplicity that approaches sublimity.

Francisco Araiza sings Tamino with nobility and ardour and Kurt Moll shows that he is still one of the most distinguished of Sarastros. There is some effortful singing at first -- adagio tempos make sustained legato singing difficult for an older singer -- but once he is warmed up, he is sonorous, smooth of delivery and dramatically credible.

Another older singer, Luciana Serra, is equally impressive as the DTC Queen of the Night: agile, exciting and accurate in the ionospheric coloratura.

Papageno is as great a comic creation as Shakespeare's Falstaff, and Manfred Hemm -- in a most athletic, almost Bill Murray-like interpretation -- does that part of the role justice. But his fine voice is a little too large -- he'd be perfect for Leporello in "Don Giovanni" -- to capture musical values as closely as he does dramatic ones. In other roles, Barbara Kilduff (Papagena), Heinz Zednik (Monostatos), and Andreas Schmidt (the Speaker) are all very fine.

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