Superb cast supplies the magic in Lyric Opera’s suburban 60s’ “Magic Flute”

Sun Dec 11, 2016 at 3:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Andrew Staples and Christiane Karg in Lyric Opera's new production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Andrew Staples and Christiane Karg in Lyric Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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.

Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Photo: Andrew Cioffi

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.

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9 Responses to “Superb cast supplies the magic in Lyric Opera’s suburban 60s’ “Magic Flute””

  1. Posted Dec 11, 2016 at 9:47 pm by Issa Cagret`

    If you can find the inner child in you, you might enjoy the “Leave it to Beaver” production of Magic Flute. But DO NOT MISTAKE THIS AS A “Kiddie Flute”. The cover of the program shows an audience of laughing children. It is NOT a kid’s show. If you loved the Everding production, you will be disappointed. Sophisticated Mason references are diminished. And, as is currently in vogue by directors, if they are uncomfortable with scores or composer’s intentions, they attempt to undermine or hide intent, showing contempt, but little insight. About 15 minutes in, Snow White and Robin Hood will bore you. That and LYRIC’s cheesy use of its new toy “oooo the stage revolves” and you quickly realize the management (Freud) and BOD seem to have contempt, also,for great opera.

    Most of the singing is good solid B+ though the Queen of the Night is an exceptional A. Likewise, the chorus, relegated to bedspreads and table cloths (really…don’t ask) sings exceptionally well and a solid A. That said is this worth nearly $500 for two main floor seats and 3:15 of your time? No. Some websites have half price tickets. Don’t pay any more than that. Don’t encourage bad productions and worse leadership.

  2. Posted Dec 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm by Matthew Carroll

    Please be advised that Issa Cagret who has left comments after every Lyric Opera review is none other than a disgruntled chorister and his comments should be disregarded.

  3. Posted Dec 13, 2016 at 1:50 am by Peter DG

    We saw the Dec 12 production and agree with most of your [LAJ] comments, except that to my ear the Sarastro voice was a bit unfulfilling. After hearing some classic recordings of the part I expected a more solid bass and a more solemn sound, both on the opening night broadcast and now in the hall.

    I was also unhappy with the amplification of some of the dialog. Papageno’s mike was scratchy at one point. And sitting in the first row we got some unnerving live voice vs wall speaker timing effects. I guess it’s a big house and we can’t all sit up front.

  4. Posted Dec 13, 2016 at 11:16 am by Zp

    Undeniably Mozart’s music worked well, as the story line are masterpieces and were amazingly performed.

    Which I cannot say about the staging and concept the Lyric Opera production team came up with. Throughout the opera I keep asking myself the question of the need to have a huge suburban house in the background…Much more, why from the 60s era? … It never really seemed to fit and it felt like it was always in the way of the performers. I never really understood the need for it or how that theme fit on the overall original work. It just took away my attention from the beautiful performances from all of the artists!

    Going to the opera is not a cheap ticket and to have a poorly thought concept attached to a musical and theatrical masterwork is just an insult to all of us ticket holders.

  5. Posted Dec 13, 2016 at 11:40 am by LC

    I have seen hundreds of The Magic Flute productions. This is the first time I really enjoyed the opera. I thought the staging worked well, unpredictable compared to traditional boring productions. Don’t let these cranky “critics” dissuade you from attending the opera. If you can afford the high priced tickets, why not?! It is good to support a company like Lyric Opera of Chicago.

  6. Posted Dec 14, 2016 at 1:20 pm by AP

    I agree with Peter. We saw the 12/10 show and Sarastro was quite underwhelming. The weakness in his voice showed before intermission and only got worse after intermission. We also experienced scratchy mics. However the rest of the singing was excellent.

    The set was cute, but it was disappointing that the Masonic references were missing. I hope this was a one time creative experiment and that a more classic interpretation will return in future productions.

  7. Posted Dec 14, 2016 at 4:04 pm by Rick Boyum

    1960’s? I was in my freshman year of high school at that time, just about the age of the young major domo in the LOC production of the Magic Flute (heard Monday night.) At that time and in those circumstances, we were all involved in putting on shows. There was a backyard circus, the swimming and diving show at the municipal pool, of course our church youth group, and campfire skits at Boy Scout Camp. We baby boomers are a big cohort of the Lyric audience now and I will guess that my peers warmly recognized the point of the direction.

    And about the film of the surfers and water skiers during the trial of water—if you ask 100 patrons while they are leaving the theater of any production of Magic Flute to give a synopsis of Act 2, I doubt that any two answers will be the same and that most will give just shrugged shoulders. I am not sure that Mozart really cared to accurately portray Masonic rites. He was trying for something much simpler and more profound. And by some accounts, Wolfgang had quite a sense of humor so I do not think he is spinning in his grave.

    The Magic Flute is a boisterous toddler of an opera and in my humble opinion is best served by productions that stretch our thinking. Wrapping the opera in tissue paper and preserving it in a box on the closet shelf does not serve the opera well.

    The singing was very fine. And that might have been the best Queen of the Night I have heard. It was a very good night at the opera.

  8. Posted Dec 16, 2016 at 11:55 pm by Donald Nathan

    We loved the show. Most of the reviews and comments are pretty much correct (and friends got us heavily discounted seats so it was well worth it) but it was very fun. The dogs were adorable most of the singing was good to great. Maybe the Sarastro was under the weather. There’s lots to see and it is beautiful music.

  9. Posted Jan 09, 2017 at 8:47 pm by amy

    Phooey. Naysayers here have no sense of theatre and dream. The hyper-clean Sims-land, which is immediately familiar as the house and backyard party no one ever really had but all aspired to, gives way to a dream cult-house floating on a house-island in the night, and eventually you’re aware that the dream is more real than the cheery everyday, which is hazy, almost lost — you’ve gone a little too far into the wardrobe.

    The Pamina/Papageno duet is lovely, Papageno is altogether charming, the three little boys are spooky and authoritative, Tamino should be callow because duh he’s a prince, and you shouldn’t be spending $250 on seats for anything anyhow.

    Go! Just don’t pay stupid money. I bet anything you’ll remember that house forever.

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