The Magic Flute
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
The first word that comes to mind when describing Lyric Opera’s new production of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is “delightful.” The second might be “unexpected.” This iconic fantasy piece, which premiered in Vienna two months before the composer’s death, has continued to be one of Mozart’s most popular pieces of work. It is telling that the “best young artist” of 1782 outsold mega stars Beyoncé, Adele, and Drake in 2016, two hundred and twenty five years post mortem!
Nevertheless, modern opera companies constantly seek ways to create new relevance for Mozart’s signature fairy tale in order to attract fledgling operagoers, as well as to help longtime fans see this perennial favorite through new eyes. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production does just that and then some. Staged as a sort of community theater production set in a late 1950s suburban back yard, this Magic Flute is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced at the opera. The curtain opens on a large and sedate suburban frame home; every window ablaze with lights that expose fully furnished (and occupied) interior rooms, standing out gaily from the starry black sky surrounding the house. As the set slowly rotates, the audience is exposed to the various preparations being made for what appears to be a grand summer party.
The entire premise feels very discordant at first, but as the play unfolds on the back yard deck (directed by a nerdy tween boy in striped polo shirt and horn-rimmed glasses), we notice not only some sly visual references to Disney characters of the era (who recall Mozart’s heroes and villains), but also evident are parallels between The Magic Flute’s ideals of humanism, brotherhood, and mercy with the emerging Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The distinctly American venue for Lyric’s story of the lost prince Tamino and his quest to find his true love may seem very different than what most opera fans are used to, but it is delivered with the same wacky humor, menacing power, and virtuous love that has made The Magic Flute an enduring favorite.
For the uninitiated, The Magic Flute refers to an enchanted instrument that is bestowed upon Tamino (Andrew Staples), a prince who finds himself lost in a wood, pursued by a dragon, and subsequently rescued by three very lusty ladies. The ladies (Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen and Lauren Decker, fully turned out in dusk-blue crinolined satin skirts, veiled fascinators, and stilettos) promptly vanquish the dragon. The adorable, cardboard box reptile, powered by a gaggle of kids, promptly exits the patio stage in a hail of red confetti, while the ladies get down to the business of deciding which one of them will seduce Tamino, who has fainted during the hullabaloo. In the course of their hilarious dialogue, we discover that they are ladies in waiting to The Queen of the Night (think Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White.) Yielding to their better judgment, the ladies flutter off to inform the Queen of their discovery, but not before leaving behind a small portrait of her beautiful, missing daughter Pamina.
As Tamino awakens, he encounters another denizen of the wood. This time it is the happy-go-lucky bird-catcher Papageno (Adam Plachetka), who is more than happy to take credit for Tamino’s rescue. Tamino however, is more interested in the lovely girl in the portrait. In classic fairy-tale fashion, he falls immediately in love with her. Having overheard Papageno’s boastful fibbing about “his” rescue and Tamino’s questions about the portrait, the ladies reappear. Peeved with the birdman’s silly blathering, they seal his mouth shut with a padlock. At that moment the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) appears. She explains to Tamino that Pamina has been kidnapped and if he rescues her, the Queen will grant him her hand in marriage. To assist Tamino in his task, she not only breaks Papageno’s spell of silence so he can accompany the prince, but she also provides the young monarch with the eponymous magic flute, magic bells and the assistance of three genies to guide him to the captive princess.
And so the stage is set for an adventurous quest, accompanied by the extraordinary music of Mozart and rich in the mystic imagery of the Freemasons, whose philosophies helped shape the young composer’s humanistic world view. Despite its many innovations and wonderfully updated humor (think kids and dogs on stage, crazy home movie projections, and a full-on leather man ballet number), Lyric Opera’s The Magic Flute would be just another clever entertainment without the world-class musical performances on which this production rests.
As the prince, British tenor Andrew Staples shines in his Lyric debut. His voice has a youthful clarity of tone, and the ease of his singing perfectly matches his natural and confidant acting. (This role will be filled by internationally renowned tenor Matthew Polenzani beginning with the January 12, 2017 performance.) Brilliantly paired with rising German star Christiane Karg as Pamina, these two make an irresistibly romantic couple. Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka and Ryan Opera Center member Diana Newman are delightfully witty as Papageno and his love Papagena, and in his first role at Lyric, German bass Christof Fischesser is alternately menacing and wise as the mysterious priest Sarastro. With the superb supporting performances we have come to expect from the marvelous Lyric Opera Chorus under the direction of Michael Black, and the incomparable Lyric Opera Orchestra, (led here by Scottish conductor Rory MacDonald), this production has plenty of wow factor. Initially, we are not as sure about coloratura Kathryn Lewek in her initial Lyric role, the Queen of the Night. In the first scene, Lewek’s voice seemed a bit too delicate and bird-like for this tremendously powerful character. She didn’t seem evil enough. In fact, her attitude seemed almost benign. Traditionally the Queen has required a big, gutsy voice, and often the character comes off as nothing short of bombastic. Thankfully, Ms. Lewek is wisely pacing herself. She is also giving greater dimension to the Queen by revealing her human side: it is the worried mother yearning to see her child again who convinces Tamino to rescue Pamina. The vengeful sorceress does not fully reveal herself until the second act, when Ms. Lewek gives one of the most perfect performances of “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” ever heard. Her technically perfect and brilliantly nuanced singing of The Magic Flute‘s infamous aria constituted the most breathtaking and satisfying moments of an extraordinary evening. In the dark days of January, Chicagoans are more than fortunate to have this wildly creative production full of wit, humor, and magic to keep the Holiday spirit alive in all of us.
(“The Magic Flute,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through January 27 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)
The Magic Flute production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi.