Mozart for Dummies: Lyric Opera chops up, dumbs down “Magic Flute” in animated travesty

Thu Nov 04, 2021 at 12:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ying Fang (Pamina) and Huw Montague Rendall (Papageno) in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

There are two kinds of opera people in the world: those who believe that the composer’s score is the essential element and everything else is secondary; and those who believe the music is merely a framework for a “show,” and that the score can be edited, altered, or sliced to accompany any revisionist production or director’s “vision.”

Sadly, the people currently in charge of Lyric Opera of Chicago are in the second group. 

There have been many artistic lows in the (seemingly endless) Anthony Freud era. But never has the company shown such contempt for an operatic masterwork as with its animated version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago company has been at sea with Mozart’s Masonic fantasy in recent seasons. Following the final bow for the charming, beloved but aged August Everding production in 201112, the company did a 180 in 2016 with a non-magical, suburban back-porch staging.

Now Lyric has rented the well-traveled Suzanne Andrade-Barrie Kosky production, originating from the Komische Oper Berlin, which offers yet another example of a dubious directorial concept pushing the cast and Mozart’s glorious music into the shadows—often literally.

The idea here is to present Magic Flute as a 1920’s silent movie. All the characters wear white greasepaint and the acting and stage action are exaggerated in the style of soundless film epics of the era.

The main problem is that Mozart’s music and the entire opera take a back seat to the nonstop animation. The set is a stark blank wall (with high tiny balconies), upon which the massive visuals are projected. Paul Barritt’s retro-style animations seem centered on a child’s view of Halloween with black cats, spiders, spear-carrying monkeys and assorted would-be spookiness mixed with bits of German Expressionist cinema.

Barritt’s visuals are fitfully inventive, yet they are more often silly and lame—exploding red hearts, leaping black cats, and running cartoon legs under the live singers’ torsos. The overall effect is exaggerated, relentless, and exhausting—like some drunk at a party grabbing your arm and telling you the same joke over and over.

There were intermittent chuckles in the house opening night but genuine laughter was rare—certainly less than any traditional Flute production with a worthy Papageno would elicit. Maybe this is funny in Germany.

But the most troubling aspect of the staging is the astounding contempt demonstrated for Mozart’s score in subverting the text to the silent-screen concept. While the music is intact, all the dialogue is jettisoned, replaced by cards explaining and often over-simplifying the action in the style of silent films: “Pamina and Papageno escape from Monastatos,” etc.

There is also no flute in this Zauberflöte nor a glockenspiel for Papageno. Nor is there a Speaker—here his (loudly amplified) exchanges with Tamino are simply given to Sarastro. Respect for Mozart’s score? Get over it, Boomer.

Further, the jettisoned dialogue is replaced by acres of tinkeling fortepiano music like silent-movie theater accompaniment. Some of the solos mine Mozart’s keyboard works but it also relies on corny dramatic chords and silent-film piano cliches. Other accretions include a wholly unmotivated cartoon of a bomb going off with a huge deafening explosion in the Papageno-Papagena scene and then having the couple appear in blackened, tattered clothing. Har-de-har-har.

In short, there is zero humanity, romantic sweetness or Masonic gravitas in this dispiriting and soulless Magic Flute. The singers are merely checkers on a board, moved around onstage to interact with the unfunny animations as needed. Lyric is advertising the production as “Mozart’s The Magic Flute” but a more accurate title is “Paul Barritt’s Animated Cartoon of The Magic Flute with Selections from Mozart’s Opera.”

Several years ago, I interviewed Ned Rorem and one of the American composer’s quotes came back to me while sitting in the house last night: “The country is getting dumber and dumber and dumber.” And with stagings like this, Lyric Opera is leading the way.

Dwarfed by the animation, a solid cast was largely wasted in this literal cartoon Mozart. Still the artists gamely resisted the nonstop jokery with moments of inspired vocalism.

Lila Dufy (Queen of the Night) and Pavel Petrov (Tamino) in The Magic Flute. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Ying Fang, a Pamina by way of Louise Brooks, contributed the high point of the evening with her deeply expressive and beautifully sung “Ach, ich fühl’s”—no mean feat with all of the character’s anguished preceding dialogue slashed. Her lovely singing felt foreign in a production that seemed impatient to get to the next visual gag.

The rest of the principals all made worthy company debuts. The over-caffeinated staging gave Pavel Petrov little opportunity to establish a likable hero as Tamino yet the Belorussian tenor contributed a “Dies Bildnis” of plangent tone and ardent sincerity. Lila Dufy as an arachnid Queen of the Night assayed the high F’s of “Der hölle rache” effectively. 

Huw Montague Rendall was a terrific Papageno—characterful, engaging and displaying an ample, firmly focused baritone. While his rubber-legged movements were suited to the slap-sticky action, one wished one could have experienced his Papageno in a less constrained production.

Sarastro here is not a wise and benevolent figure but a strange mix of Abe Lincoln and Victorian mad scientist, his appearances set off by animation of whirring gears, schematics and workshop devices. Despite the unhelpful visual ennui, Tareq Nazmi sang magnificently, the Kuwaiti-German singer deploying a true bass of subterranean richness and amplitude.

Brenton Ryan was a fine Monastatos, the villain clad in a mask channeling Max Schreck from Nosferatu (one of the production’s few genuinely clever touches). 

Ryan Opera Center members Martin Luther Clark and Anthony Reed were a strong duo of Armored Men, while Denis Velez was an appallingly sung Papagena. Mathilda Edge, Katherine DeYoung and Kathleen Felty made a routine trio of overcoat-wearing Ladies. Under Michael Black, the burnished ensemble singing of the Lyric Opera Chorus provided a bright spot in this depressing evening.

As fatal as the concept was to Mozart’s opera, revival director Tobias Ribitzki handled the staging challenges well, and the cast was always smoothly coordinated with the animated barrage.

The soft-as-butter opening chord and listless, timpani-led Overture didn’t bode well for the evening or conductor Karen Kamensek’s company debut. After that, the Chicago native’s direction was more capable, though balances often seemed off, at least as heard from the extreme right side of the house.

The Magic Flute runs through November 27. lyricopera.org

Posted in Performances


21 Responses to “Mozart for Dummies: Lyric Opera chops up, dumbs down “Magic Flute” in animated travesty”

  1. Posted Nov 04, 2021 at 11:20 pm by Chris Galka

    Time for Herr Freud to leave LOC!

  2. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 12:15 am by Erem E Bobrakov

    Bravissimo, Mr Johnson!

    I was born in Europe after WW2 and one of the most memorable events in my childhood was when at the age of 5 or 6 my mother took me to the Opera House. It was magical. Rigoletto was the performance, Gilda was phenomenal and when we left the chimes of the medieval cathedral belfry had the same pitch as those in the final scene. Music was one of the things that sustained people through brutal years and horrors of the Nazi occupation.

    I feel that our civilization is under an onslaught by forces of barbarism and different kinds of surreptitious attack on many fronts. That includes of course demeaning the essence of art. I am afraid the current Lyric leadership aligned themselves with the dark forces.

    In the morning after this performance, which we left after the first Act, I placed a call in to the Lyric and cancelled our subscription. That after over thirty years of attendance.

    In all fairness, this Magic Flute was not the worst opera production I attended. It was second worst. The crown belongs to a Les Troyens that we attended in the Opera Bastille that was staged there after a hiatus of over 30 years. The great merit of the audience was that the beginning at Act 3 was drowned in the avalanche of booing. That stopped only when the witty conductor tied a white handkerchief to his baton and raised it high over his head. Only then the music resumed. At least it was music.

  3. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 5:01 am by Sue Brettina

    It’s always so amazing how much hatred you can show the Lyric. One things there can’t be more, but with the next “review,” there is. And you are certainly in the minority about the production–or rather, three–since it is now so popular, there are sets that live in the US, Europe, and Asia. Israeli Opera is in rehearsals for it as we speak. LA Opera and Minnesota Opera have both already done the production twice since they first rented it from the Komische Oper. It’s popular. Even if you continue to hate the Lyric.

  4. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 9:46 am by Maryann

    I could not agree more. I was looking forward to a performance of Magic Flute but I could hardly find it in this.

    I believe this production’s popularity rests on the fact that there aren’t sets that need to travel. It’s cheap to produce. And by prerecording some musical sequences, based on (?) Mozart, we are well on the way to eliminating a live orchestra. I won’t say that it’s a Freudian dream but the orchestra did defeat his attack on them with their strike.

    Finally, the projections left me with a terrible headache and distracted from the music that was there. Woe be to anyone with migraines or a seizure disorder attending this production.

  5. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 10:04 am by Robert Chirinko

    The Johnson review was spot on. A horrible evening at the Lyric. Yes, this staging is popular. But so are the “Kardashians.”

  6. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 10:19 am by John

    I can think of no more damning statement than to say that something is a new low under the current Lyric administration. I will never understand how anyone cannot grasp that Chicago audiences do not want to see European, particularly German, staging narcissism.

    I still recall with reverence the brilliant 2002 Magic Flute at the Lyric with Dorothea Roschmann, Matti Salminen (luxury casting!!), and the incomparable Papageno of Gerald Finley — the finest performance of any opera I’ve seen in my life.

    And has it now come to this? The only thing this administration will recognize is its empty bank account when people stop buying tickets. Based on the Lyric’s unending invitations to buy tickets, they already have.

  7. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 11:46 am by Peg

    Thank you for the exceptional review of this disaster presented by the Lyric. It was godawful. One of the worst nights I have had at Lyric Opera.

    Mr. Freud is making sure I do not renew my subscription and that saddens me since I have been a patron for almost 25 years with my family. I find so little joy when I attend the opera these days at Lyric. I couldn’t decide if I was at a silent movie, a horror show, Monty Python or Saturday morning cartoons. Certainly I was not at the esteemed Lyric Opera.

    Cheap sets, canned music. The only redeeming things about this production was the exquisite chorus and outstanding orchestra. The great days of Ardis Kranik and William Mason are long gone. It breaks my heart.

    The Lyric has sunk to such a low level under Freud. Between his shabby treatment of the orchestra, trying to take away the employees’ health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of the radio broadcasts—all of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Danny Newman has jumped out of his grave.

    No more donations from me, no bequest in my will to the Lyric Opera. The once mighty and world famous Lyric Opera has ceased to exist.

  8. Posted Nov 05, 2021 at 2:10 pm by AR

    I disagree with Mr. Johnson’s general philosophy of opera staging, but must agree with him about this particular staging.

    The core problem with this production, like many others, is that the director’s vision not only does not complement the score but actively conflicts with it. Taking the colorful and fantastic setting of the Magic Flute and making it all black and white creates a dissonance which is very difficult to sit through. In general it seems as though the only thought that was put into creating this production was thinking “this will look cool” without any further thought for how it would look to the audience.

    I remember feeling very sorry for Ms. Dufy flawlessly hitting those high notes while the attention of the audience was distracted by unnecessary action happening on the screen. Similarly, for all of the frenetic screen action the whole thing felt very inert. All of the action being projected onto the screen somehow only reminded me more that I was watching four singers standing still on stage.

    As I said, I’m not opposed to novel and inventive staging. I’d much rather watch something thought out and interesting than something I’ve seen a half-a-dozen times before. However the staging must be done with some thought and consideration for the audience and music.

    That, I think, is what has been missing from many recent “new” stagings, in particular this one.

  9. Posted Nov 06, 2021 at 3:36 pm by Philip Kraus

    Euro trash. Every opera aficionado know the term. LOC has had its share of these ghastly productions over the years, but there definitely seems to be an increase in the Freud years. When is anybody at the Lyric going to figure out that Midwesterners are on the whole more conservative when it comes to opera stagings. By the way, conservative doesn’t mean unimaginative; just respect for the work of art.

    As a former artist at Lyric, aside from the disregard for it’s audience, this production was an insult to the excellent cast of singers who were put in unattractive makeup, forced to act in small areas of the set, and we’re constantly upstaged by the multi media garbage. Yikes! Time to close your eyes, and just listen to the music…or better yet, stay at home and listen to a classical recording and imagine your own staging.

  10. Posted Nov 07, 2021 at 3:30 pm by Caryn Green

    I am sitting at the Lyric during intermission for the Lyric’s Magic Flute. I am disgusted and appalled by this production.

  11. Posted Nov 08, 2021 at 9:17 am by Harold Kupper

    The good news is that Mozart’s miraculous score emerges triumphant in spite of everything this tiresome, gimmicky production throws at it.

    In an era of hyper-theatrics and realism in opera the singers are literally strapped into place and rendered immovable most of the time.

    The most off-putting element of the entire production was the ticky-tacky pre-recorded interlude music accompanying the dialogue cards. A collection of tiresome musical cliches that have no place shoehorned between Mozart’s gorgeous arias, like being offered day-old 7-11 weiners between each sublime course at Blackbird.

    It’s all so gritty and relevant. Such a clever juxtaposition! See the poor conductor racing to keep up with the cartoons flashing on the screen! So nimble!

  12. Posted Nov 09, 2021 at 11:47 am by Bob Monroe

    I’m going to go ahead and say for the price I paid, I deserve a better Queen of the Night than a Julliard graduate student. Her goat-like vibrato ruined everything it touched that was below the staff!

  13. Posted Nov 11, 2021 at 6:15 pm by Mary Jo Hoeksema

    This was such a disturbing, disappointing rendition of The Magic Flute.

    We drove from Michigan to Chicago to attend our first opera since before the pandemic. What a waste of time and money! It felt like watching a cheap cartoon. Most of the time I closed my eyes and tried to just listen to Mozart’s beautiful music.

    I don’t understand the point of destroying the opera like this.

  14. Posted Nov 11, 2021 at 7:27 pm by Charles Rhodes

    I found the Queen of the Night to be spectacular. So many generic sounding singers on the operatic stages of today. I could identify her voice over the airwaves immediately upon one hearing only.

    Happy to have heard her and looking forward to a great future for her.

  15. Posted Nov 11, 2021 at 8:29 pm by Roger

    I was introduced to the world of opera in the late 60s while attending the Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman’s classic, The Magic Flute. This was a beautifully produced movie with color, humor and lovable puppets. I was enthralled and wanted to attend a real opera.

    I began attending LOC in the late 70s and am now a patron for 15 years. For the most part, I have enjoyed LOC’s productions, some fine and others OK.

    During the Freud era, I find myself enjoying LOC less due to terrible productions and stage sets. And with this Flute, a new low! The stage cinematics were tiresome, boorish and major distractions, preventing the patron from appreciating the talents of the performers.

    I purchased a ticket for Flute to attend an opera but instead screened a high-tech cartoon!

  16. Posted Nov 12, 2021 at 1:31 pm by M

    Hello,
    I’m a performer at Lyric. The interlude music has been referred to in the comments as “canned” but it is a live continuo player from the pit.

  17. Posted Nov 17, 2021 at 11:41 am by Beth Bryngelso

    I fear this administration is trying to destroy the opera company. He has no appreciation for opera and does not deserve his position. He has created a Board that follows in his horrible taste.

    What can we do to get rid of this man?

  18. Posted Nov 17, 2021 at 5:44 pm by Georgia

    This afternoons performance was thoroughly enjoyable. I loved this interpretation of the Magic Flute. I’ve seen it performed in the traditional way a few times and found this version refreshing. All the singers were fantastic!

    Previous commentators seem stuffy. There is plenty of room for new renditions along with traditional ones.

  19. Posted Nov 18, 2021 at 3:21 pm by Janis Crego

    I agree with all the negative comments. This is one of my two favorite operas. I have performed in this opera with another profesional company.

    I am so disappointed and so sorry that my good money went to produce such an underclass opera. Pamina was very good and the 3 GENIES who were doublecast were good. I felt like I was watching a cartoon which I could do any Sat. morning.

    We have had our season tickets for 48 years and we have never been so disappointed with an opera at the Lyric as we were this time. Please do not ever get this kind of a European production again.

  20. Posted Nov 19, 2021 at 9:15 pm by Peter DG

    We attended the Nov 18 matinee, just the first half, though I did attend the entire dress rehearsal. Singers these days are expected to act, not just stand there and sing. The singers didn’t interact much during the rehearsal and I learned why. On Nov 18 we were up close and noted that the singers were wearing full face masks, presumably for costume, not for Covid reasons. Don’t know how they were able to sing, much less interact. Most were actually attached by safety harnesses to the wall on tiny platforms way above the stage floor. The only acting we noted was by the three ladies. The three genii sounded good, singing from the right edge of the stage, almost totally blacked out.

    That recit music was played on a keyboard instrument sitting at the left end of the pit, some Mozart like music but not from the Magic Flute score. The sound we heard actually came from speakers behind the left wall, very irritating, probably amplified by over 100 db. It might as well have been piped in.

    We’ve been Lyric subscribers and supporters for over 50 years. I suppose Lyric’s current trauma was aggravated by the pandemic problems, though other classical music organizations seem to have managed to survive.

    Don’t know how the Lyric can be rescued, but I hope the active board members can figure it out. This is painful for me personally because there is little reason to stay in Chicago if the Lyric bites the dust. There’s the CSO of course, but opera is the star of the performing arts universe.

  21. Posted Nov 20, 2021 at 4:31 am by David Elkayam

    This show was utter crap. I had to close my eyes to be able to enjoy any of the music because there was so much crap going on that stupid screen. As much as Lyric Opera tried to be modern, let’s face it, never going to happen.

    I have never left an opera that angry in my life. What a stupid production. And those stupid boxes with heads popping out, and the stupid running legs. Appalling!!!

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