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‘The Magic Flute’ takes its cues from Monty Python, silent films, Victorian greeting cards — and it’s fabulous

Driven by Paul Barritt’s vividly colored animation — at times whimsical and charming, but often ominous and terrifying — it envisions Mozart’s comic opera as an early silent film.

Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno and Ying Fang as Pamina in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “The Magic Flute.”
Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno and Ying Fang as Pamina in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “The Magic Flute.”
Cory Weaver

Lyric Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which opened Wednesday at the Lyric Opera House, is a feast on multiple levels. For the eye certainly, with dazzling, non-stop animation channeling everything from the intricate, fantastical machines of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the fabled BBC comedy hit of the early 1970s; Victorian-era greeting cards; and the ornate, intertitle cards of early silent movies. And for the ear definitely, with a uniformly strong cast and the Lyric Opera Orchestra sounding both lush and buoyant under conductor Karen Kamensek.

But, like many feasts, too much of a good thing can overwhelm the appetite. This production, first seen in 2012, is the brainchild of Barrie Kosky, artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper, and Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, founders of the innovation British theater company 1927.

Driven by Barritt’s vividly colored animation — at times whimsical and charming, but often ominous and terrifying — it envisions Mozart’s comic opera as an early silent film. As the lovelorn bird catcher, Papageno, baritone Huw Montague Rendall echoed the comically hapless Buster Keaton, complete with porkpie hat and sagging, woebegone shoulders. As Pamina, Prince Tamino’s virginal lover, soprano Ying Fang sported bobbed hair and the long-waisted, short-skirted dress of a sweet young flapper. Tenor Pavel Petrov’s Tamino was as upright and steadfast as any heartthrob of Hollywood’s silent era.

But at times the non-stop animation dwarfed the human beings at the center of “The Magic Flute.” For much of the opera, directed in this revival by Tobias Ribitzki, the individual singers were confined in a single spotlight. Wearing the pale makeup of early European cinema, they were utterly isolated from one another. Often perched far above the stage floor, they stood in narrow doorways, each trapped in a white oval of light against a vast, black background. It’s an arresting visual device, evoking the stylized scenes of such German Expressionist films as Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis.” But sometimes, between the waves of ever-changing animation and the isolated singers, we lost sight of the opera’s human drama.

Tareq Nazmi as Sarastro (left) and Brenton Ryan as Monostatos in “The Magic Flute” at Lyric Opera of Cihcago. | Photo Cory Weaver
Tareq Nazmi as Sarastro (center) and Brenton Ryan (right) as Monostatos in “The Magic Flute” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Cory Weaver

Mozart’s glorious music was always front and center, however. Among the evening’s standouts was Fang’s Pamina. Her voice is bright and ringing, and a hint of darkness in her low notes made it clear she was no flighty flapper. Torn between her beloved but vengeful mother, the Queen of the Night, and her love for Tamino, she was a fully rounded, beleaguered young woman.

With his flexible, robust baritone, Rendall’s Papageno was equally vivid. Knees quivering, clutching his battered hat, periodically petting the animated black cat that followed him everywhere, he was Everyman yearning for nothing more than a pretty little wife and a good meal.

Petrov has an agile, warm tenor voice, and he was an ardent, stalwart Tamino. But given the staging, Tamino was a cardboard character. Not until the final scene, when Tamino and Pamina finally embraced, did we realize exactly how little physical human contact this production contains.

Huw Montague Rendall stars as the bird catcher Papageno in “The Magic Flute” at Lyric Opera of Chicago 2021. | Cory Weaver
Huw Montague Rendall stars as the bird catcher Papageno in “The Magic Flute” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. Lila Dufy’s enraged Queen of the Night unleashed impeccably precise coloratura flights as fierce as her animated character’s lethal, spider legs. Sporting a stovepipe hat and Lincolnesque beard, baritone Tareq Nazmi’s Sarastro was an authoritative leader. But we sensed a whiff of 19th century American, religious cult charlatan as well. Wearing a long, black coat and commanding a pack of snarling hellhounds, Brenton Ryan’s Monostatos was faintly comic and definitely creepy, a creature out of F. W. Murnau’s classic film, “Nosferatu.” Whether vying over Tamino’s attention or doing the Queen of the Night’s dirty work, the Three Ladies were distinctive and self-confident. The sweet voices of the Three Genii were an ideal fit for their animated counterparts—ramrod-straight little boy dolls floating through the sky with constantly hovering wings. During the title-card interludes, Jerad Mosbey’s hammerklavier evoked the muffled, metallic sound of an early piano roll.

With so many visual delights, it seems churlish to wish for a bit less movement and color. Wonderful images linger in the mind: Pamina caught in an animated spider’s web, menaced by flying daggers and swarming insects. A drunk Papageno surrounded by dozens of pink elephants lolling in giant martini glasses.

Mozart wrote “The Magic Flute” as a popular entertainment, after all, and without question, this production achieves that goal. It is, indeed, one helluva show.