By Ian Rigg
There is nothing more magical than the mind of a child.
Before the world imposes its rules upon it, a young mind spins limitless light and levity, turning the mundane into a realm of boundless possibility. To capture the magic of the holidays, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has conjured a spell from collective childhood memory. On a summer’s night beneath the stars, a young director (nonverbal master Lucas Vergara) musters his entire neighborhood to put on a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The gleeful interpretation of an old classic is a tremendous triumph, with lavish production values, a terrific orchestra and divine voices that are nothing short of orthophonic joy.
The show’s opening is a downright cinematic masterpiece. One wonders whether they’re watching an opera or a Rockwell painting come to life. With a turntable moving at exactly the right speed, a moving tapestry of a 1950s town preparing for a performance plays just like a cinematic tracking shot. The opera becomes a masterpiece thanks to the mirthful interjections to a well-tread plot. Tamino is pursued by a giant green dragon consisting of a chain of cardboard boxes. The genii toss glitter whenever a magical instrument is distributed. Kids in animal costumes are summoned by the titular magic flute, completed by a boy walking backwards to better illustrate an ostrich’s odd knees. The staging is filled with these homemade touches, down to the “audience”‘ donning 3-D glasses for the Queen of the Night’s entrance to the show-within-a-show spotlight operator wearing oven mitts to protect his hands from the heat.
The play-within-a-play conceit is just the kind of limitation that produces sheer genius. Dale Ferguson is the creative team’s lynchpin, having designed both the set and costumes. Ferguson has built a house onstage. No, not a facade of a house. A fully furnished house, replete with two stories, shingles, siding, bricked chimney, and patio. The house is entered, but audiences only ever see inside it by virtue of whatever angle the turntable has landed on for that scene. That attention to detail for something audiences will never witness is astounding, as is the playful way the home is utilized for a child’s “theatre of the mind.”
Just as his set design is a testament to domestic majesty, so too is his costume design homespun haute-couture. He has dressed everyone in period 1950s garb, but the performers get costumes that are not only gorgeous and well-made, but exactly what a mid-century child might picture his ideal cast wearing; a prince straight out of Disney, a birdman covered in feathers, priests in flowing white robes and flowing beards. Ferguson’s fine work is aided by the wonderful wigmaster and makeup designer, Sarah Hatten. Monostatos has a wig as mad and impotent as he is, and Hatten’s take on Papagena is phenomenal. Damien Cooper‘s lighting design is immaculate, grounding the proceedings in their reality, but casting it in the warm glow of a child’s ever-shifting dream.
A dream is as close a descriptor to the production as perhaps can be found, for these musicians’ execution of Mozart is unreal. Conductor Rory MacDonald moves his hands with a fluid fury, extracting from his outstanding orchestra, and prompting his vocalist virtuosos to soar even higher. Chorus master Michael Black marshals a tremendous team of trained singers, filling the grandiose space with gorgeous tones.
Christiane Karg is a phenomenal Pamina. Her innocence and her despair tug heartstrings as her sumptuous soprano pervades the air.
Andrew Staples is a terrific Tamino. Just as his flute is enchanted, so too is his voice, the beauty around him inspiring the beauty of his song.
Adam Plachetka earns every chortle, giggle, and guffaw garnered by Papageno. Likely to be the fan favorite, the command of his boisterous and beautiful bass-baritone voice stands in sharp contrast to his onstage blunders. His comedic timing is as impeccable as his voice. His beloved Papagena, played with aplomb by Diana Newman, is every bit his hilarious match, her sultry soprano initially hidden beneath the guise of an old crone (which she plays splendidly)
Christof Fischesser‘s Sarastro is patriarchal, profundo, and profound. With a bass so pleasing to listen to, it’s small wonder no one questions the high priest’s mandate. Rodell Rosel‘s Monostatos is deliciously odious, with a versatile voice and an even more spry physicality.
The Magic Flute comes complete with two terrific trios. Dressed like cowboys, the three genii that guide Tamino and Papageno (Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner, and Asher Alcantara) are not only precious, but immaculate. The Queen of the Night’s Ladies in Waiting (Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen, and Lauren Decker) are a tour de force, both vocally and comedically.
But a Queen is a Queen, and Kathryn Lewek is sovereign of the stupendous opera. Entering in a purple haze through an upstairs nursery with starry mobile, stepping out onto a balcony, Lewek’s coloratura soprano is an exquisite treat. The Queen of the Night is one of the repertoire’s most challenging roles, and yet her tones remain true with an effortless fury. The Queen’s iconic Act II aria (which requires a high F6) is worth the price of admission alone.
Lyric Opera’s mounting of The Magic Flute is a resounding success. Director Neil Armfield has taken an old gem and brought it to sparkling light again by way of childlike whimsy. Setting the piece in a mid-century suburb establishes a common emotional currency of nostalgia, but also allows astute audience members to see the cracks in that rose-tinted mirror. He is brave to present the work not only with an ingenious imagination, but with an impish irony. In an outdoor climate literally and figuratively as cold as it can be, audiences will find warmth in the jolly lambasting of the opera’s patriarchal overtones, equally at home in 1791, 1956, and 2016.
Mozart himself, who died at the tender age of 35, just two months after The Magic Flute’s premiere, was a child prodigy and retained much of that mirth for the rest of his incredible, irreverent career. Exiting the aisles of the exquisite opera house, patrons may hear a gleeful giggle, one they may remember hearing on a starlit night long ago.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “The Magic Flute through January 25 at the Civic Opera House,20 N Wacker Dr # 400, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.