When the curtain rises on the Lyric Opera's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, directed by Neil Armfield and with set by Dale Ferguson, we see not fantastic dragons or enchanted landscapes but something far more mythical: a big, white-panelled house, with glimpses (as it rotates) of copper cookware in the kitchen and children running in the yard. It's the American Dream. Revisionist stagings of classic operas tend toward alienation effects, but this one goes all-in on the opposite: it's a rare concept that reaches for the heartstrings, and tugs hard.

© Andrew Cioffi
© Andrew Cioffi

The set returns us to what looks like the 1960s, but it's also politically current. According to the program, the production is set in a "backyard near you", projecting the universal locus of childhood as predominantly white, suburban and middle-class. The '60s are one of those decades in American history that the President-elect was thinking of when he decided to “make the country great again”, and the feeling that the set wants to evoke relies on the same foggy fantasy that the slogan promises.

The premise is that the opera's story is a backyard play (put on ostensibly for children and their families). Adults gather obediently on lawn chairs, which face a makeshift stage that sees processions of all stripes of adorable animal. At this point in the opera, the set's de-dramatization feels refreshingly honest: the ridiculous and simplistic tale of the evil witch, the prince and the maiden is rightfully returned to the arena of children's games, and adults look on indulgently, with a wink.

Andrew Staples (Tamino) Ann Toomey, Lauren Decker and Annie Rosen (Three Ladies) © Todd Rosenberg
Andrew Staples (Tamino) Ann Toomey, Lauren Decker and Annie Rosen (Three Ladies)
© Todd Rosenberg

But then, around the time that the opera's hapless heroes stumble upon Sarastro's domain, the lawn chairs have disappeared and the children are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the parents re-emerge in full costume as Sarastro's followers. Here we are faced with the obvious question: is this still a play, and if so, who is it for? The cuteness of the backyard production feels very distant now; it is as if the adults now fully believe what their children had only played at.

Adam Plachetka (Papageno) and Christiane Karg (Pamina) © Todd Rosenberg
Adam Plachetka (Papageno) and Christiane Karg (Pamina)
© Todd Rosenberg

Read this way, the production seems to issue a warning about how seriously, or unseriously, one accepts the difficult parts of The Magic Flute alongside its pleasures. As is common practise by now, the surtitles did not render the word "Schwarz" that peppers Monostatos's aria of internalised racism, though the opera's deeply sexist structure is not so easy to erase. The disappearance of children from the stage (aside from the three child-spirits) after the opening scenes suggest that the simple binaries and casual violence that structure children's worlds have transferred to the land of grown-ups, who don't realize that the frame of the play has now extended to take in the world. 

The production seems to raise such questions about the myths that still organize the world of adults, though it offers little in the way of answers. What it does offer is a spate of mature and controlled performances, including Andrew Staples' Tamino, sung with a warm, broad tenor, and Pamina, voiced with more brightness and nimbleness by Christiane Karg. Adam Plachekta as Papageno is a great children's entertainer, and is complemented well by Diana Newman in the thankless role of Papagena, which she imbues with every ounce of life she can. Kathryn Lewek sang the Queen of the Night with a vocal force and clarity that could cut diamonds, though some more bodily gesture might have been used for dramatic punctuation.

Kathryn Lewek (The Queen of the Night) © Todd Rosenberg
Kathryn Lewek (The Queen of the Night)
© Todd Rosenberg

Rory Macdonald led the Lyric Opera Orchestra with tempi that were mostly on the tight side, though I mostly missed the sense of longer rhythmic planning. After a little warming up, the orchestra found its balance with the singers (some discreet miking in the spoken sections helped), with the strings sounding especially plummy and soft on opening night.