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Chicago Opera Theater proves ‘Magic Flute’ isn’t totally played out

Emily Hindrichs (center) plays Queen Night with Katherine McGookey (from left) JuliHardLeilBowie as her Three Ladies.

Emily Hindrichs (center) plays the Queen of the Night, with Katherine McGookey (from left), Julia Hardin and Leila Bowie as her Three Ladies.

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When: Through Sunday

Where: Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $45-$125

Info: (312) 704-8414;

Updated: October 18, 2012 6:22AM

“Another ‘Magic Flute’?!”

I gave up counting how many times this year I was asked this — or even had it shouted at me — by opera fans.

It’s true that a weird set of circumstances meant that Lyric Opera of Chicago remounted its too-well-worn production in 2011-12, Ravinia presented an indoor offering at the Martin Theater with a half-sized but full-throttled Chicago Symphony Orchestra last month, and now Chicago Opera Theater is closing out its calendar year 2012 season at the Harris Theater with the first new full production in the area in 17 years.

I have a solution both for those who’ve never seen Mozart’s 1791 career-closing “singspiel” and those who have seen it more times than they can count:

See COT’s version and then take a rest.

Veteran British Mozart hand Steuart Bedford is conducting an excellent, right-sized 36-piece orchestra (plus keyed glockenspiel!). Brian Dickie, for his last presentation for COT after a stunning 13-year run as general director, has assembled an excellent and balanced youthful cast and, with director Michael Gieleta and a three-man design team, has created a mostly clear and brisk staging (running just two hours and 40 minutes, including the intermission). The unusual — these days — choice to do the show in English translation (the standby Jeremy Sams Brit treatment) actually works and increases audience engagement, especially in the often hard-to-follow second act.

And the Queen of the Knight, Louisiana native Emily Hindrichs — despite being a late-game replacement — can sing and act, and knocks the witch’s boots off of anyone heard at Lyric in a long, long time.

Gieleta and the designers have dispensed with much of “Flute’s” busy-ness and cute (which may make it a bit rough for kids to sink into compared with some other versions). Sometimes they go for a bit too much bare bones. Where’s the thunder? That lighted extension chord is a dragon or monster?

But this clarity also puts the focus on both the music and the humanistic purpose of Prince Tamino’s challenge — to follow virtue and honor and to recognize that these can sometimes require submission to harmony. South African James Macnamara has called on planetariums and “The Little Prince” for his effective cosmic landscape, creatively lit by Julian Pike, and two-time Tony nominee Gregory Gale has created a simple, Buddhist-meets-19th-century-Central-Europe costuming.

Debuting American tenor Sean Panikkar is of mixed Sinhalese and Tamil background, with parents who left Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflicts for a new life in the United States. You get the sense that the smooth-voiced singer fits easily into the role of the searching exile. Maywood-born soprano Elizabeth Reiter, returning to COT after nine years, integrates the many conflicts of her Pamina into a convincing musical and theatrical whole. Baritone Markus Beam, who last sang with COT in 2002, might be a bit contained as Papageno but once he meets his Papagena, current COT Young Artist Program soprano Valerie Vinzant, he comes more alive, as does she, delightfully.

Hindrichs eats her two stratospheric numbers like toast and she also gives us a Queen of the Night who makes sense as a character and even draws our sympathy. Former and current Young Artists Leila Bowie, Julia Hardin and Katherine McGookey were tops as the Queen’s Three Ladies. Caps off to Henry Lunn, Andrew Peck and Duncan Johnson, who take on the tough roles of the Three Boys at a time when many companies cast girls on these challenging roles.

Baritone Bruce Hall was a strong speaker but Russian emigre bass Grigory Sokoviov, while tuneful, lacked some gravitas as Sarastro, the head priest and the Queen’s rival. Tenor Alex Mansoori did a fine job vocally with the problematic role of Sarastro’s henchman Monostatos, but what director Gieleta had in mind for the character and his assistants, here in quasi-military guise, I couldn’t tell you.

Stephen Hargreaves got a warm sound from both his male and mixed chorus of company apprentices.

This was a production that started off planned to be one thing but, after hitting financial and scheduling roadblocks, became another. It’s one well worth seeing and hearing and a fine transition from Dickie to his successor Andreas Mitisek, who offers up his first work here in late February with “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Philip Glass. As the late Danny Newman would say, “Subscribe now!”

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7)

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