The Magic Flute comes with baggage. There’s misogyny and racism embedded in the text. Its moral message boils down to “Trust dudes with beards, and also love is cool!” The libretto is long, poorly paced and dumb as a bag of rocks; unless you’re really into Freemasonry, the second half drags ass all the way to a jarring anticlimax.
There are good things built in, too, obviously, or it wouldn’t be one of the most popular operas ever. There’s Mozart’s immensely likeable score. The jokes transcend time and language. The Queen of the Night’s big arias are a standing invitation to bring down the house; ditto the fairy-tale setting for costume and set designers. Still, modern productions of The Magic Flute tend to have some sort of conceit to distract from the nonsensical story: It’s all a dream! It’s a post-suicide journey to the afterlife! It’s drugs! Postmodernism!
In Diane Paulus’ new take, a production premiered in Toronto in 2011 and now getting its third outing from Opera Philadelphia, the Academy of Music’s stage literally contains another, smaller stage, on which an 18th-century audience of aristocrats and servants watch a production of The Magic Flute. I hate to discourage Opera Philadelphia from giving new stuff a shot, but this production is confusing, and its core concept — plus a couple key voices one afternoon — just isn’t all there.