The Magic Flute
While introducing Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s "The Magic Flute," incoming General Director Andreas Mitisek gave a wry nod to the opera’s popularity in Chicago this year. But as usual, COT’s last production under Brian Dickie is a Flute like no other.
Although the performance in English might seem to be the most obvious way in which COT breaks the mold, it’s not, and that’s all for the good. The translation by Jeremy Sams lets Mozart’s music sing as beautifully as Emanuel Schikaneder’s original and the occasional dialogue imparts a flow to the action that is often missing when singers find themselves halting for a mouthful of German.
Michael Gieleta’s direction and the gorgeous staging are what make this version of the classic fresh and new. James Macnamara’s design is more or less a single set: Three panels of scrims form the upstage wall, with the center panel thrust a bit downstage of the others.
On each, the sweeping curves of the galaxy are ever-present, ever-changing as Julian Pike’s lighting design washes them in somber purples, vivid greens, and pulsing reds. With backlighting, the trio of boy guides become their own constellation, Pamina a single point of light marking Tamino’s true north.
Upstage of the scrims, an arc of criss-crossing curves set in the floor suggests a celestial body at dusk or dawn and characters emerge and depart via an opening just upstage of this. Macnamara rounds out the set with eight "planets" of varying size that can be raised and lowered. It’s quite a feat to take a more or less static set and give them impression of a characters in a dozen strange and dangerous scenes as the heavens turn around them.
The only remotely "off" moment in the staging might have been the trials of fire and water. Gieleta places the rope snake on the mantle in Act I, and Pike lights it up with his fiercest red Christmas lights, but when the audience gets to see it all, Tamino is still wrestling with a rope and there’s not much question that he and Pamina will survive a brisk sprinkling in a smallish water feature.
Those very minor moments aside, though, this production flows so well and works so seamlessly, one almost forgets how absurd the plot really is. Gieleta further succeeds in emphasizing characters and relationships to such a degree that Pamina seems less like the toy surprise princess Tamino wins and the struggle between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night has some real teeth.
The voices in this production are no less than stellar, which is typical of COT despite its "no stars" credo. Sean Panikkar makes a long, long night of singing for Tamino seem effortless. As Pamina, Elizabeth Reiter is certainly up to both the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role as Gieleta envisions it.
Markus Beam’s Papageno is less of the buffoon in this production. If he’s constantly under Tamino’s feet, he gets to be a genuine ally to Pamina and the characterization suits his powerful voice well. Papagena is a bit stripped down in this version, but Beam and Valerie Vinzant are charming together. Alex Mansoori (Monostatos), Grigory Soloviov (Sarastro), and Bruce Hall (Speaker) form the foundation of a more than solid supporting cast.
It simply would not do not to devote a separate paragraph to Emily Hindrichs who absolutely kills it as the Queen of the Night. From Hindrichs’ opening notes, even the most nervous of opera goers would have sat back and let it all wash over them, secure in the knowledge that she could not do a single thing wrong even if she wanted to. Simply stunning.
"The Magic Flute" runs through September 23 at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St. in Chicago. For info or tickets, call 312-704-8414 or visit http://ChicagoOperaTheater.org.