I loved Lyric Opera’s 30-year-old production of The Magic Flute, with its 18th-century costumes and storybook sets.
So I was skeptical about the new production the company opened Saturday night, ready to be grouchy about change for change’s sake.
As it turned out, no need. I was won over almost as soon as the curtain went up on what proved to be a clever and joyful reimagining of Mozart’s much-loved 225-year-old singspiel (opera with spoken dialogue) as a backyard production by a bunch of American kids for an audience of neighbors.
The opera is performed outside a “typical” suburban house, in someplace like Oak Park, probably around 1960. And the entire house is there: an idyllic, life-size Cape Cod, planted center stage on Lyric’s giant new toy—er, turntable. As the story unfolds, the house rotates to show us its patio, front stoop, or side-yard cellar entrance.
This conceit, by Australian director Neil Armfield, could be an excuse for skimping on production costs. The flashiest parts of the story—a man-eating dragon, an awe-inspiring temple, trials by fire and water—are definitely tamed by it. But it doesn’t feel shortchanged: on the contrary, it looks like money (and a lot of thought) was lavishly spent to create the perfect illusion of a ragtag kids’ show, complete with a cardboard-box monster (by Blair Thomas), ancient priests draped in sheets and chenille bedspreads, and family pooches in a walk-on as fearsome lions. “Neighbors” are both participants in the show and the onstage audience.
Sets and costumes (by Aussie designer Dale Ferguson) draw on the pop culture baby boomers grew up on: Princess Pamina (exceptional soprano Christiane Karg) is decked out in her Snow White costume and hair; her mom (impressive coloratura Kathryn Lewek) is a dead ringer for Disney’s evil queen, and Tamino ( British tenor Andrew Staples through January 8, then local favorite Matthew Polenzani) is the familiar Prince Charming in his bow-and-arrow hunting outfit.
It’s also a concept that could turn too cute in a hurry, but it doesn’t. While some of the serious and problematic spots in the libretto have been softened, its Enlightenment message of the need for reason, wisdom, and equality is intact, along with Mozart’s enchanting score.
Memorable performances among the uniformly solid cast include tenor Rodell Rosel, who turns the problematic villain Monostatos into a nasty/funny scene stealer; bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as the easy-living, mate-seeking bird catcher Papagano; and the three “wise boys,” local youngsters Casey Lyons, Parker Scribner, and Asher Alcantara. Rory MacDonald conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus.
If you’re taking kids who haven’t seen a traditional production of the Magic Flute, you might want to sit them down for a reading or video viewing beforehand. They’ll get more out of this “variation on a theme” if they know what the starting point is. And they need to be old enough to read surtitles. Like more traditional productions, this one is performed in German, though it’s so thoroughly American, it ought to be done in English.
The Magic Flute Through 1/27: Wed 12/13 and Fri 1/6, 7:30 PM; Sat 1/14 and Wed 1/25, 2 PM; Sun 1/18 and Thu 1/12, 2 PM; Fri 1/27, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244, lyric opera.org, $17-$329.