On the surface, their resources are humble, even plain. The women wear black slips, combat boots and mangy fur coats; the men, gray suits and conservatively wide ties. The main stage element is a large, rectangular platform that can be suspended at various angles from cables attached to its corners.
On each side of this bare setting is an artist whose effects are amplified with the use of speakers and live-video projections. At stage right, the visual artist Blake Habermann, armed primarily with a chalkboard, held the audience rapt with line drawings that were projected in real time onto the scrim. He suggested the enormity of Sarastro’s temple of wisdom with a stack of leather-bound books. The Foley artist Ruth Sullivan parked herself at stage left with a cabinet of curiosities that she used ingeniously to add sound effects to the stage action.
“Die Zauberflöte” is, at least in part, a parable of what humans are capable of — of what they can achieve when they look inside themselves. McBurney’s obvious delight in the everyday feats of the show’s sprawling assemblage of artists, singers and actors (who trailed Papageno waving paper birds) expands an idea that already exists in the piece itself. His fidelity to the show’s spirit mollified the jolt of his occasional departures, as when he spliced some dialogue into Papageno’s entrance aria.
McBurney did some rethinking too — specifically, around the opera’s battle of the sexes, wherein enlightened men shake their heads at the folly and frivolity of women. In Mozart and Schikaneder’s singspiel, women lurk in the dark, wild outskirts beyond the gates of Sarastro’s shining, orderly sanctum. Stagings often accept this binary as a truism of the piece; audiences chuckle at jokes written at women’s expense.
It’s one of the achievements of McBurney’s staging that he defanged this dichotomy — I heard no discernible laughter at the book’s misogynistic quips — by satirizing the men’s smugness. The Three Ladies (Alexandria Shiner, Olivia Vote, Tamara Mumford), with their voluptuous harmonies and gleeful immodesty — they strip Tamino of his tracksuit and take a deep, horny whiff of it — were loads of fun. Sarastro’s temple, with its unflattering overhead tube lighting, was populated by bloodless corporate shills. The Speaker, Tamino’s guide through the opera’s Masonic trials of character, morphed into a complacent, amusingly strait-laced factotum (Harold Wilson).