“Once Upon a Time…” No doubt, this has become one of the most familiar lines of childhood. Indeed, what childhood would be complete without fairy tales and fantastical stories of knights, princesses, dragons, and talking animals? Even into adulthood, fantasy and fairy tales continue to capture the imagination of many. Not surprisingly, young and old alike are perpetually drawn to Mozart’s fairytale fantasy, The Magic Flute. A combination of fairy tale and Masonic/Judeo-Christian allegory, Mozart’s hallowed masterpiece has captured the hearts of countless individuals both young and old since its première in 1791. Just in time for Christmas and the ensuing month, the Lyric Opera of Chicago decided to revive its delightful, time-tested August Everding production for a magical night of mirth and music suitable for all ages.

Stephane Degout, Katherine Lerner, Charles Castronovo, Elisabeth Meister, Cecelia Hall in The Magic © Dan Rest
Stephane Degout, Katherine Lerner, Charles Castronovo, Elisabeth Meister, Cecelia Hall in The Magic
© Dan Rest

In this production, familiar to many, all the magic and mirth conjured up by both the opera’s epic story and the possibilities of modern technology were omnipresent. Giant dancing animals, a fire-breathing dragon, a roaring stone lion, trapdoors leading to Hell, and a floating ship that carried the three guardian boys were only a handful of the countless surprises that awaited the dazzled audience at the Lyric. Flowers and birds magically popped out of the sets, while eerily authentic thunder and lightning effects sent resonating and forebodingly sinister chills throughout the entire auditorium. In brief, the vast spectrum of spectacular visual effects in this production never ceased to amaze me, and nor did the elaborate, time-tested sets and costumes which served as the backdrop for this outstanding production. Additionally, visual and verbal gags abounded, tastefully executed at all turns yet never once overdone to the point of stagnation. While this production proved serious enough to receive endorsement from serious opera-goers, its producers ingeniously managed to include more interactive and relatable gags for younger audiences and those new to the world of opera. I especially enjoyed how Papageno, Prince Tamino’s lovable sidekick, frequently interacted with the audience, once intermingling with them during his search for his spouse-to-be, Papagena, thus bringing a more “up-close and personal” touch to this beloved opera.

The cast, while not vocally perfect, most definitely sang and acted “from the heart” and succeeded in winning the audience’s affection and approval. Nicole Cabell proved the most angelic Pamina, both in voice and acting, while Charles Castronovo proved a worthy complement as Tamino. Cabell and Castronovo’s adorably affectionate Pamina and Tamino exemplified a childlike purity, albeit one laced with maturity and dignity that gradually increased as the opera progressed. As the wise, paternal Sarastro, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck provided a gentle yet authoritative touch to the role much in the spirit of Alec Guiness’ beloved Obi-Wan Kenobi, both in voice and demeanor. Most prominently, French baritone Stéphane Degout stole the show as the cheeky and lovable Papageno. Degout’s Papageno fully captured the entire essence of his character, never ceasing to draw laughs from the audience members with his antics and witty soliloquies. Similarly in the comic light, Rodell Rosel as the evil and lustful Monostatos added a clever “comic villain” touch to his character while maintaining his signature repulsion which left audience members cheering whenever justice was meted out against his atrocities. Sadly, however, Audrey Luna as the evil Queen of the Night failed to satisfactorily deliver the vocal and dramatic bravura demanded of her illustrious role. During her character’s famous aria, Luna not only failed to exemplify an evil, enraged mother, but she also missed the mark vocally during the role’s signature high notes. In these notes, Luna’s intonation proved so inconsistent and far on the sharp side – an obvious sign of vocal tension and too much effort.

Despite the one minor pitfall just mentioned, my enjoyment of this most delightful and ingenious production of The Magic Flute was not hampered in any way, most definitely winning my ultimate approval with all its glamorous sets, tasteful gags, and delightful cast of both talented adults and charming children. Throughout the production, I frequently found myself mesmerized by the opera’s spell, tapping my toe to Mozart’s cheerful melodies and laughing heartily at each masterfully executed gag. Although veteran operagoers may lament the Lyric’s decision to revive a longtime production of this overperformed opera – or even its decision to stage it once again at all – as a stale and commercial gimmick to cater to youngsters, I would challenge that opinion. Out of all the operas and opera productions I have seen thus far, this production was the most outstanding for all the reasons I have mentioned. Indeed, if I was given the opportunity to return for a second performance, I would immediately and gladly accept that opportunity. Hence, for all those seeking clean and fresh, family-friendly entertainment this Christmas season in Chicago, I wholeheartedly endorse a trip to the Lyric Opera of Chicago before this production’s closure.

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