Superb cast supplies the magic in Lyric Opera’s suburban 60s’ “Magic Flute”
When Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered the August Everding-Jörg Zimmermann production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 1986–starring Judith Blegen and Francisco Araiza–the company likely had little idea of how important that staging would be. The witty, fanciful show was an instant and huge success, running for over a quarter-century though five revivals and 61 performances. For a generation of young Chicagoans, the Everding Magic Flute was their first exposure to Mozart and to opera.
But all things good and great must come to an end. While the final revival of that Mozart staging in 2011-12 was just as entertaining, the sets were looking pretty shabby and the animal costumes downright sad.
Lyric Opera unveiled its new production of The Magic Flute Saturday night. And those who loved the charm and imagination of the company’s previous Flute best brace themselves with a shot of something strong.
Perhaps the Lyric powers that be decided that it was hopeless to try to compete with the clever stagecraft of the Everding production. Gone are the flying ships, boats and dozens of little Papagenos and Papagenas. And what takes its place is initially jarring to say the least.
Director Neil Armfield–helming his first Zauberflöte–has transplanted Mozart’s timeless fantasy into suburban America, c.1962 judging by the costumes. In this demythologized staging, the opera is put on by children–clearly musically sophisticated ones–in their backyard. Befitting the “hey kids, let’s put on an opera” theme, the costumes and effects are homemade and cheerfully chintzy: the serpent is made of cardboard boxes and golden glitter is tossed at magical moments. An onstage audience of parents and neighbors watches the patio show from lawn chairs, applauding the action, like the play within a play in Pagliacci.
Dale Ferguson’s unit set is a massive, revolving bilevel house. The Queen of the Night makes her appearance from a second-floor balcony, Tamino and Papageno hide in a basement shed, and the signs for the three temple doors are hand-written on cardboard.
Mozart’s score is such fail-safe titanium that even the dubious concept and mundane visuals are not fatal. Once past the initial setup, the action is played straight for the most part and, aided enormously by an excellent cast, one is simply carried away by Mozart’s remarkable music.
There is nothing as disastrous here as the crass sexual shtick of Lyric’s Marriage of Figaro last season. Unlike in that garish show, Mozart’s music is always front and center, and not pushed into the background by directorial excess or distracting stage business.
Armfield is resourceful in utilizing the unpromising tri-gabled set for the quick-moving action. The show was clearly meticulously rehearsed and went off almost without a hitch on opening night. Ferguson’s middle-class early 1960s costuming was dead-on and his homemade animal costumes for the children proved charming and delightful. And who can resist two big, fluffy dogs doubling as lions?
Still, there are issues. Playing out much of Act 1 on the tiny raised backyard patio feels decidedly cramped with the onstage audience to the left and a huge empty expanse to the right (apart from what appear to be a couple silent assistant directors in period garb). The crucial Masonic inspiration for the scenario is completely missing in action. And while projecting home vacation movies on a white sheet for the trials by fire and water fits the amateur-theatrical conceit, going for a cheap laugh by showing period films of Niagara Falls, surfers, and Tommy Bartlett water shows, completely undermined the gravitas of the ceremony.
Even with that tacky low point, ultimately the strong cast and musical values overrode most reservations about the production.
As the captive heroine Pamina, Christiane Karg was heard to much better advantage than in her Susanna from the 2015 Lyric Le nozze, even with the Snow White outfit. The petite German soprano sang with consistently bright, luminous tone, was charming in the Act I duet with Papageno and plumbed dark tragic depth in her expressive, beautifully sung “Ach, ich fühl’s”. Karg brought dramatic credibility to the situations despite the staging’s artificiality, and it was an added pleasure to hear the text delivered so idiomatically by a native German speaker.
Making his company debut was Andrew Staples as Tamino. The English tenor was a worthy, suitably youthful rescuer, delivering an ardent “Dies Bildnis” and displaying a light, flexible somewhat dry-toned voice. Dramatically, Staples made a rather callow Tamino, lacking heroic stature, though he got little help in that department from the staging or his Robin Hood getup.
As with Karg, Papageno proved a more suitable role for Adam Plachetka than his Figaro a year ago. The Czech bass-baritone sang well as the earthy birdcatcher and showed nimble, finely honed comedic instincts throughout.
Kathryn Lewek was an exceptionally strong and scarily malevolent Queen of the Night. After a somewhat unsettled Act 1 aria, she delivered an astounding “Der Hölle Rache,” seamless in the stratospheric coloratura, and high F’s nailed with striking force and rich tone.
Christof Fischesser is the latest in a seemingly endless line of very tall German Sarastros. The young bass brought a dignified presence and flexible voice, handling the subterranean notes of his arias with graceful ease.
Diana Newman made a versatile, well-sung Papagena, amusing in her guise as old lady and sexy in her instant transformation into Las Vegas showgirl (one of the production’s more clever period touches). Rodell Rosel was once again a wonderfully characterful Monostatos, relishing his over-the-top villainy.
Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen and Lauren Decker were an equally vivid and vocally distinguished trio of Ladies. As the Three Boys (or Genii) Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner, and Asher Alcantara were more prominent in this production than most, and handled their vocal and stage assignments with impressive aplomb.
David Govertsen was an authoritative Speaker, Alec Carlson and Emmett O’Hanlon fine Priests, and Jesse Donner and Patrick Guetti solid Armored Men.
In this production’s non-speaking roles, Lucas Vergara was the nerdy young director, aided by his buddies Hudson Ford, KyLee Hennes, Meguire Hennes and Lev Kaplan.
Conductor Rory Macdonald proved a solid Mozart hand in the pit, providing vitality and sensitivity as needed, a few draggy tempos apart. The Lyric Opera Orchestra played with enviable sparkle and freshness, even in this familiar score.
Under Michael Black’s direction, the Lyric Opera Chorus served up robust and polished ensemble singing throughout the evening.
The Magic Flute runs through January 27. Matthew Polenzani takes over the role of Tamino January 12. lyricopera.org
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