Chicago Opera Review: THE MAGIC FLUTE (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 13, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Few operas are more delightful than Mozart’s Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), which fuses fantasy and adventure with high ideals and memorable melodies. Lyric has aptly billed it as family-friendly fare (child tickets are available), playing up the opera’s whimsical elements at the expense of its moral philosophy and social criticism. The end result might be heavily influenced by Disney, but it remains pure Mozart—uncut and entirely in German.


Like a medieval romance or fairy tale, The Magic Flute centers on the quest of a young prince named Tamino assisted by the birdcatcher Papageno. After an encounter with the Queen of the Night, who gives Tamino a magic flute and Papageno magic bells, the two set off to find the queen’s daughter, Pamina, who has been captured by Sarastro and is guarded by his minion Monostatos. Yet, all is not as the Queen of the Night led them to believe. Tamino soon undergoes trials of silence, fire, and water in order to join Sarastro’s brotherhood and be united with Pamina. Papageno too finds love with his namesake Papagena.

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Emmanuel Shikaneder’s libretto is suffused with masonic elements, emphasizing the triumph of reason, nature, and wisdom over the forces of darkness and superstition, but there are contradictions too, especially concerning the brotherhood’s attitudes toward women and slaves. Director Neil Armfield’s new production glosses over these issues with a generous layer of pageantry. Set in postwar Chicago, the drama unfolds in and around a typical suburban house, which revolves almost continually on Lyric’s new turntable (a design novelty which is wearing thin).

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What you get is a play within a play, or a fairy tale masquerading as a backyard production. There are dozens of extras (or supernumeraries) dressed in casual American duds who mostly watch the action, but don’t participate, except for the children who run the show(!). And there are named characters that sing and speak, such as Pamina, who channels Snow White, and Tamino, a curious mix of Robin Hood, Peter Pan, and the prince from Sleeping Beauty. Amateur special effects abound, including gold glitter used as fairy dust and trapdoors that swallow people whole.

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If Armfield’s staging doesn’t grab your attention, then surely Mozart’s music will. Baritone Adam Plachetka and soprano Christiane Karg, who memorably performed in last season’s production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, return as Papageno and Pamina. Though Plachetka was miscast as Figaro, he is perfect as the pleasure-seeking birdcatcher Papageno. With his expressive face and large body, he is the ideal comic foil for British tenor Andrew Staples’ more serious and noble Tamino. Making his Lyric debut, Staples boasts a beautifully smooth and silky voice that showcases the clear, pristine sound that the British do so much better than anyone else. (Matthew Polenzani will replace Staples in the run’s second half.)

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Also making her Lyric debut is soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night. In her role’s famously difficult aria “Der Hölle Rache,” absolute precision is matched with graceful coloratura; it does not disappoint. Rodell Rosel, who played Mime in this season’s production of Das Rheingold, plays the similarly wretched character Monostatos in The Magic Flute. A fine actor and a gifted tenor, Rosel is the kind of performer who becomes his role so completely that he is nearly impossible to recognize from one opera to the next. Lastly, one must mention the adorable part played by the three child spirits: Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner, and Asher Alcantara. Their high-pitched boys’ voices and cherubic faces contribute vitally to the childlike wonder and imagination of this playful production.

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If you’ve been enjoying the Amazon original series Mozart in the Jungle or read Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night, then you won’t want to miss The Magic Flute. Although it runs about three hours long with one intermission, the time goes quickly due to the steady pace of the music and direction. And while the production is eminently accessible, it could have been rendered more so by translating the spoken German lines into English. Nevertheless, Lyric Opera is to be congratulated for mounting a Magic Flute that lives up to its name.


photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on January 27, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Cathy Porter January 22, 2017 at 6:10 pm

The first Lyric opera performance in 30 years that I consider to be nothing less than awful. The problem was not Mozart or the cast; it was the terrible staging which totally overwhelmed the opera and became a significant distraction from the first minute until the curtain came down. Why did they do this? Maybe because they wanted to display the great success they had in spending money on the new stage equipment.

J Hanline January 25, 2017 at 6:11 pm

Saw the matinee today and was very disappointed. I agree the awful staging took away from the beautiful music. I know the idea is to make opera more appealing to a younger crowd but isn’t part of the grandness of opera in addition to the music, the costumes and staging? And shouldn’t most of it be relevant to the time period. Somehow a 1960s backyard didn’t draw me in.

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