Normally what would one say about The Magic Flute? It is compositional genius paired with a misogynistic and stilted libretto that makes no sense and in which no character has any motivation beyond the surface one that they sing tediously about, (though high-minded allegorical references to the wonders of the Enlightenment and rationality are sprinkled throughout). It’s one of those things that defies logic and you just have to roll with it and enjoy the beauty of the singing and maybe whatever is going on on stage.
In this one, the singing is exceptional as usual, from the outstanding trio of Ladies sung by Mathilda Edge, Katherine DeYoung, and Kathleen Felty, to the principles of Pavel Petrov as Tamino, Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno and Yin Fang as Pamina, who could not have been better. The showstopping Lila Dufy as Queen of the Night and regal Tareq Nazmi as Sarastro and Brenton Ryan as his minion Monostatos (who honestly stole every scene he was in, though part of that was due to the production’s help) were equally stellar. Everything about the music in this was absolutely top quality. The Lyric is back in top form and even if it just was acoustically this good, I would have recommended you go. But this is so, so much more than acoustically good.
The real star of this version of The Magic Flute is the production. The Lyric Opera’s new-to-Chicago production is imported from Germany, where it was originated at the Komische Oper Berlin. It was created by Suzanne Andrade the co-founder of London-based theatrical company 1927 and Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin and has been seen by over 700,000 in Germany alone. It’s been performed in the U.S. in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia before coming here under the oversight of revival director Tobias Ribitzki.
The conceit is that what you’re watching is a German silent movie from the 1920s that is influenced by period cabaret and expressionist art, though there are many elements that have an Edward Gorey-esque flair as well. And while it seems out there, it is absolute perfection when you think about the structure of The Magic Flute. The opera is a Singspiel, with spoken portions of dialogue interspersed with the singing, like modern musical theatre. In this production, all of that dialogue is translated to title cards, just like it would have been in a silent film, and backed by music on the Hammerklavier, which gives it a unique antique and tinny sound like the live honky tonk piano that played behind silent films.
And film is what this production is all about. Because, like a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, what you have is a film rolling on a massive white screen with live actors singing in front of a filmed, animated storyline. This allows the more insane and fantastical portions of the narrative to come alive. There’s a battle with a dragon. There’s a trial of fire in hell. There are winged fairies and pink elephants spewing wine from their trunks and a full-blown Nosferatu. There’s a chorus of wolves doing a kick line in ladies’ lingerie. And that’s not even the weirdest or most inventive stuff you’re going to see. I don’t want to spoil what they do with the Queen of the Night (don’t watch the linked film if you want to be unspoiled), but it’s not like anything I’ve ever heard of before and she’s both awesome and funny as she interacts with Tamino as she convinces him to help her rescue her daughter.
This also means the opera is almost entirely park and bark, which is great for the singers singing this complicated music. But in an ordinary opera park and bark can be the most boring horror show for anyone in the audience. But here it’s an absolute advantage. Because of this production’s embracing of modern technology and film projection, the singers standing still while the film goes insane around them created one of the most exciting and visually amazing productions I’ve ever seen anywhere.
And, of course, there are times when the singers are interacting with the film surrounding them, and that makes for some of the most stunning visual effects in the entire show. They also create several original animated characters that are just adorable, or weird, or creepy in some cases, but it all works. This thing is an absolute masterpiece and I think that every other production of The Magic Flute is going to be chasing the glory of this forever now.
Honestly, the stills don’t do it justice because this is all about art in motion. Go look at the film here at the Lyric’s You Tube channel (unless you want Queen of the Night to be a surprise).
Run, do not walk, to the Lyric Box Office and get tickets to this. It’s some of the most inventive theatre ever. Purchase your tickets here.
All Photos by Cory Weaver for the Lyric Opera