A backyard Magic Flute from Lyric Opera

Andrew Staples (Tamino) and Christiane Karg (Pamina) in "The Magic Flute." -Todd Rosenberg
Andrew Staples (Tamino) and Christiane Karg (Pamina) in “The Magic Flute.”
-Todd Rosenberg

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “The Magic Flute”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Jan. 27
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Lyric Opera of Chicago has launched a new production of ‚“The Magic Flute” just in time for the holidays. Mozart’s comic opera about love and brotherhood is the perfect way to spend a cold evening the music and the fantasy warm the soul. Lyric has gathered together a marvelous cast who will enchant you for nearly three-and-a-half hours.

Christiane Karg and Andrew Staples star as Pamina and Tamino, a pair who find happiness together after undergoing trials which open their hearts to a world free of superstition and hatred. The German soprano and British tenor are well matched, both singing with vigor and ardor, and have our sympathy from start to finish. (Matthew Polenzani takes over the role of Tamino beginning Jan. 12.)

Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is a splendid Papageno, capering his way through the opera with comedic delight and offering a fresh and full sound throughout. His introductory aria, explaining his role as birdcatcher, is rendered with panache and from there he goes from strength to strength.

American soprano Kathryn Lewek makes a marvelous Lyric debut as the Queen of the Night. And she has a mien so malevolent it could knock a Mountie off his horse. Her second act revenge aria, “Der Holle Rache” features laser-like accuracy and ringing tone. It is the musical highlight of a performance jam-packed with fine singing. Lewek is a singer to watch, and let’s hope she returns to Lyric soon.

German bass Christof Fischesser gives Sarastro the right degree of authority as well as firm wisdom. His low notes aren’t booming, but they have compelling color.

Filipino-American tenor Rodell Rosel, a former Ryan Center singer, proves once again that he’s a comic whirlwind. His Monostatos is just the right combination of evil and wacky.

American soprano Diana Newman is an engaging Papagena and Illinois bass-baritone David Govertsen has great dignity as the Speaker.

Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen and Lauren Decker, all Ryan Center members, bring well-matched and attractive singing to the Three Ladies.

Lyric has found three talented Chicago-area boys for the Genii. Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner and Asher Alcantara have vocal and theatrical talents beyond their tender years.

Rory MacDonald conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra with zest. The tempos are pert, the details are polished, and the sound perfectly envelops the singers. Chorus Master Michael Black has prepared the chorus expertly, and they bring lovely texture to Mozart’s masterpiece.

Since 1986 Lyric has relied on a whimsical production created by August Everding. But at long last, they have brought an entirely new set of ideas to the stage.

Australian director Neil Armfield, who directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Sweeny Todd” for Lyric, brings an unusual approach to the opera. He and his creative team have created a large, two-storey house which takes center stage. The idea is that a group of teenagers from an immigrant community in 1960s suburban Chicago decide to put on a backyard production of “The Magic Flute.”

As the overture plays, the house slowly revolves on a huge turntable and an enormous troupe of supernumeraries slowly appears, bringing food and chatting amiably with their neighbors. They eventually settle into seats set out in the yard, and the story begins.

Because kids are producing this “Flute” the effects are simple. This is utterly charming at times, with adorable golden retrievers serving as lions, the serpent represented by a string of kids under large cardboard boxes, handfuls of glitter tossed into the air when magic is performed, and when Tamino tames the beasts with his flute a passel of young kids in sweet and silly animal costumes fill the stage.

This approach does have its problems. Armfield eclipses most of the opera’s Masonic elements, which are central to Mozart’s story. Armfield’s nostalgic love of Disney means that Pamina is decked out in a dress like that worn by Walt’s Snow White. Worse, some of the dramatic moments, notable the trials of water and fire, are treated as jokes with home videos of waterfalls and marshmallow toasting projected onto a bedroom sheet. The house takes up the major part of the stage, so that for some scenes the opera’s action is compressed into a small, cramped space.

It is interesting that the house is so carefully detailed. Everything in it is authentically sourced from the 1960s, as are the costumes. It’s easy to stop and ask: in a time when opera companies around the world are desperately clamoring for more money, does it make sense to invest so much time and money in ensuring that you have a tin made by Ritz 50 years ago to sit on the kitchen shelf when it has nothing to do with “The Magic Flute?” Is this merely self-indulgence by a director who would better serve the audience by giving the actual opera more stage space and more resources?

I don’t know the answer to that question. This opera has so many charms and such strong musical appeal, you should see it and decide for yourself.