Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder & Carl Ludwig Giesecke. Score: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $20-$299. Runs through: Jan. 27
"Eurotrash" is a label that traditionalist opera fans often use to disparage way-out directorial productions that disproportionately play on the other side of the Atlantic. But those hard-liners will have to find a different expression to assess the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new high-concept production of The Magic Flute, since it aims to be so all-American.
Rather than setting Mozart's popular 1791 comic singspiel in a fantasy land where wild animals that can be tamed by enchanted musical instruments, director Neil Armfield has plonked The Magic Flute in a progressive Chicago suburb ( think Wilmette or Oak Park ) circa 1962. The main concept here is that an ambitious neighborhood kid has rounded up friends, parents and even family pets to ambitiously stage The Magic Flute for neighbors to enjoy on a warm summer night.
For the most part, Armfield's family friendly play-within-a-play approach is charming and a massive nostalgia trip. Armfield's approach revels in simplified storytelling and the influences that might have spurred a child's imagination back then.
Hence the affectionately homemade-looking costumes by designer Dale Ferguson that draw many influences from Disney animated films like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Feguson's complex set design for the spinning suburban house are also spot-on to the era while showing off the Lyric's new mechanized turntable to masterful effect.
The entire cast of singers and supers all gamely toss themselves into the production, and look to be having lots of fun in the process. Soprano Kathryn Lewek particularly impresses as a commanding Queen of the Night ( all those high notes! ), while bass-baritone is endearing as the simple everyman bird catcher Papageno. The romantic pairing of Christiane Karg's Pamina with Andrew Staples' Prince Tamino is also heavenly ( Evanston native Mathew Polenznai takes over as Tamino on Jan. 12 ).
One could argue that Armfield's suburban American setting saps some of the magic out midway through the work. Or that an English translation should have been sung to suit Armfield's directorial vision rather than sticking to the original German text.
But I'm largely impressed with Armfield's staging, especially since it makes such a strong statement of how a community can be brought together for the purpose of creating art. And with such strong musical aspects all around under conductor Rory MacDonald, those traditionalists who want a more fanciful Magic Flute can simply close their eyes to dream another one up.