Mozart’s Magical Majesty And Mirth Mined In Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new ‘Magic Flute’ has a backyard feel, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Dale Ferguson.
(Photo by Andrew Cioffi)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

CHICAGO — The infectious, utterly disarming success that is the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute begins with the overture — a very good place to start, of course. But the instant charm has little to do with the brilliant sounds emanating from the pit. As the music wafts up, a nearly full-size, two-story mid-20th -century house — pale yellow with white trim and a handsome blue roof — rotates on a turntable and neighborhood folks gather while last-minute preparations are made for the presentation of an outdoor play.

The whimsical production unfolds as if kids in the fifties conceived it. (Todd Rosenberg)

The community-fashioned drama at hand is none other than Mozart’s crazy mash-up of high philosophy and low comedy, produced with manifest love, seriousness, and homemade imagination by a group of committed kids and adults (who just happen to be terrific singers). Those same qualities of affection, wit, and purpose apply as well to the creative team behind the concept of this backyard Flute: the Australian team of director Neil Armfield, set and costume designer Dale Ferguson, and lighting designer Damien Cooper.

Ah, and puppet designer Blair Thomas, who has created a dragon possibly unmatched in the opera’s storied history: a series of ordinary cardboard boxes, the first enhanced with a fearsome snout, and all roughly colored in red and green and placed over the heads of kids of various sizes. Sneaker-clad feet power this dragon-train forward in hot pursuit of a terrified prince. When three spear-wielding ladies subdue the monster, its several box parts (the kids still in them) simply fall over onto the grass, more or less at the same time.

Puppet designer Blair Thomas fabricated the sneaker-footed dragon. (Cioffi)

Thus commences a whimsical, funny, and musically enchanting new Flute that manages to keep a traditional look while injecting the show with the feel of a suburban block party.

The production, the Lyric’s first since August Everding’s beautiful and popular version was brought to the stage in 1986, opened Dec. 10 and continues through Jan. 27 (with Matthew Polenzani taking over as Tamino on Jan. 12). It is part of an unusually ambitious fall season at the Lyric that includes Part One of Wagner’s Ring cycle and a new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

By no means does the Lyric production trivialize either the music or the aspiring message of Mozart’s opera. Indeed, by the beginning of the second act, the backyard viewers are mostly gone — now in the chorus, we’re given to assume. But our attention has long since been riveted on these scrappy players in their wonderfully creative get-ups. From the start, the singing left no doubt that, under humble disguise, this was the real thing.

Tenor Andrew Staples offered a sweet-voiced Tamino, the prince who strays into an unfamiliar land and suddenly finds himself charged with rescuing the kidnapped daughter of the Queen of the Night. Staples’ tender singing of “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” Tamino’s love-struck reaction to a cameo of the girl, Pamina, set the vocal bar for what would be an altogether rewarding night.

Soprano Kathryn Lewek, Queen of the Night. (Rosenberg)

Fanciful and farcical as it is, the opening scene of The Magic Flute also pours on the vocal brilliance — deceptively so in the case of the loopy bird-catcher Papageno (the virile and marvelously dopey baritone Adam Plachetka) and breathtakingly so when the Queen of the Night sweeps in with the first of her two star-blazing arias, peak moments of each act. Soprano Kathryn Lewek made a dazzling entrance with her first aria, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn!,” but her second visitation, with the high-flying “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” all but put the show away. Lewek’s effortlessly soaring turn produced a long, noisy break in the action as the audience cheered.

For The Magic Flute to work as theater, it needs to communicate a genuine sense of Tamino, Papageno, and Pamina’s Excellent Adventure — three characters thrown together in harrowing circumstances who become real pals and, in the case of the destined new rulers of the realm of light and truth (that would not be Papageno), lovers. The Prince and Papageno struck that easy chemistry, as did the bird-catcher and the imperiled princess. Soprano Christiane Karg’s Pamina and Plachetka’s Papageno made an especially lovely repose of their duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” an almost parenthetical moment in the opera that brings us close to the humanity of both characters.

Tamino  (Andrew Staples) sings, Papageno (Adam Plachetka) suffers.(Rosenberg)

An engaging Flute also needs to allow ample room for Papageno’s schtick, and director Armfield feathered that comedic nest with broad indulgence. Plachetka, a big guy with a well-schooled voice to match, buoyed the role with sure comic timing and skilled physical humor. During Tamino’s trials of virtue and worthiness in the citadel of Sarastro, this Papageno’s earthy preferences — a glass of wine, a tasty snack, some mindless chatter — were not just funny but also touching in their honesty.

Bass Christof Fischesser’s vocally grand Sarastro provided the essential gravitas, and indeed made one forget entirely about the homey set-up of this Magic Flute. His madcap opposite was tenor Rodell Rosel’s lusty, leering Monastatos, playing his dastardly comedy to the hilt, ever hopping about on feet stung by punishment’s whip. Much credit also is due both the Queen’s three Ladies — Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen, and Lauren Decker – and the three treble Genii: Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner, and Asher Alcantara. Both threesomes made fine vocal contributions, and all plunged wholly into the production’s bright spirit.

The Lyric Opera Chorus imbued Mozart’s noble hymns with a majesty that, let’s face it, would not be within the grasp of an ad hoc neighborhood choir. Likewise, the Lyric Orchestra under Rory Macdonald constantly kept one connected to the reality of a great opera being performed by a stellar ensemble of singers and musicians, who seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us.

For tickets, go here.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.

Sarastro (Christof Fischesser) instructs Tamino and Pamina (Christiane Karg) in the way of wisdom. (Rosenberg)