Cosmic Forces

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I know it sounds so cliché, but this year, time did fly by, like Dreamliner-speed fly by.  After a blur of a difficult summer, I’ve suddenly found myself in early September and right smack at the beginning of Chicago’s fall arts and culture season, the fifth one I’ll be writing about since From the Ledge’s inception in 2007.  Yes, five years writing this blog – I can’t believe it myself.  And it’s so fitting that my fall arts season officially begins with Chicago Opera Theater (COT)’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the first new Chicago production of the well-worn but well-loved opera in 17 years, in an English translation by Jeremy Sams. The Magic Flute was the first opera I ever saw way back when during the medieval times (actually Manila in the 1970s which, in some aspects, was similar), and was one of the first cultural experiences I distinctly remember; it obviously played a role in shaping the smart, curious, discerning, not to mention fabulous, cultural cognoscenti I’ve become (ahem).  I’ve actually always found The Magic Flute to be a fun romp, a shimmying, dazzling, light-hearted ball of operatic silliness and grandiosity, sometimes incoherent, mostly engaging, a great introduction to opera for children and those unfamiliar with the art form.  COT’s production, despite some questionable design and directorial choices, doesn’t disappoint – it’s an accessible, fast-paced, gloriously-sung production which should win operatic converts all around.

The Magic Flute has a pretty convoluted, and imho, sometimes cheesy narrative – the Queen of the Night commands Prince Tamino, aided by his sidekick the bird catcher Papageno, to rescue her daughter Pamina from a cult-like Brotherhood headed by her nemesis Sarastro. In between the usual operatic trappings of attempted rapes and suicides, community rituals, misunderstood intentions, mistaken appearances, etc., the story boils down to a battle between good (Sarastro) and evil (Queen of the Night).  The second act is particularly known for stretching credulity with its numerous twists and turns, and director Michael Gielata, despite a strong visual sense and a light hand in pacing the first act, seems to have barreled through this act, so much so that the defeat of the Queen of the Night and her cohorts feel like a non-event. Fortunately, the Queen is played by the stunning coloratura soprano Emily Hindrich, whose formidable singing and smoldering stage presence easily makes the character the most memorable element in the production.  If she’s bad, then bad is good, and gorgeous, and sexy, and memorable – she really makes Sarastro (effectively played by bass Grigory Soloviov) and his brotherhood as boring as cheesecloth soaked in soy milk.  I think the whole ensemble sings well, and acts unevenly but ultimately adequately (because this opera is written in singspiel, which combines singing and speaking, the emoting is more pivotal).  The other stand-out is Sean Pannikar who sings commandingly as Prince Tamino, but also gives him so much sexy, contemporary, masculine vulnerability.

I am a little perplexed by the conceptual nature of this production – it’s set in an abstract galaxy, which is fine to a certain extent, but when Tamino and Papageno say they are crossing a mountain to get to Sarastro’s temple, does that mean they’re crossing planets? Or mountains in a planet? I’m not sure the libretto clearly translates to the conceptual vision.  Also the design elements are all over the place (which is one of my pet peeves: see exhibit A- The Hypocrites’ 2009 production of Oedipus):  set designer James Macnamara populates the stage with hanging spheres which I guess represent the planets in this conceptual galaxy, but Sarastro’s rituals take place in a temple more rooted in reality, like the temple in, uhmm, Lost.  The costume design by Broadway designer Gregory Gale is head-scratching:  Sarastro and ilk dressed in cult-ish robes (ok, got that); the Queen of the Night’s henchpersons, the Three Ladies, are in some indescribable ensemble which brings to mind such diverse looks as the costumes in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Sting’s wings in Dune enlarged and expanded, and Divine’s drag outfits (didn’t get that); and Sarastro’s guards are dressed as if they’re auditioning for the 1928 British military play Journey’s End after shopping at Barney’s Co-op (where did the whole interplanetary/galaxy theme go?).  Julian Pike’s lighting is also inconsistently shadowy; at times the performers’ faces are shaded in, uhmm, near-darkness while singing their big numbers. It’s all visually confusing and sometimes frustrating.  But The Magic Flute has some of Mozart’s most beautiful, haunting, emotionally-resonant music, and the orchestra’s playing under conductor Steuart Bedford and the cast bring it to magical life, so I just closed my eyes (the English words helped) and overlooked the design missteps.  In opera, it ultimately boils down to the music.

Chicago Opera Theater’s The Magic Flute plays 3 more times this week: tonight, September 19, and this weekend, September 21 and 23, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph.  It’s a great musical time, for you opera novices, an unintimidating one.

Photo credit:  Liz Lauren

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