Mozart in Mexico? That’s the premise of Boston Lyric Opera’s new world-premiere production of “The Magic Flute.” Forget the original Egyptian setting, and the odes to Isis and Osiris, and the paean to freemasonry. In this English-language adaptation by Leon Major, Kelley Rourke, and John Conklin, college students Tommy, Pamela, Patrick, and Monty are studying Mayan ruins. When they come on stage and Pamela says, “I can’t believe we’re really here,” and Tommy answers, “Yeah, the Mayans were such an advanced civilization,” you might think you’re in for an evening of Mozart Lite. In fact, this is a thoughtfully reimagined “Magic Flute” that, well staged and exquisitely sung and acted, probes the serious subtext of Mozart’s singspiel.
At the outset of your standard “Magic Flute,” Tamino is menaced by a serpent. Here, Tommy is bitten by a snake and begins to hallucinate. In his dream, he’s Tamino, Pamela is Pamina, birdwatcher Patrick is Papageno, and sulky Monty, who has the hots for Pamela, is Monostatos.
Over the next 2½ hours (including a 30-minute intermission), Mozart’s music is presented pretty much as he wrote it. There’s some repositioning of arias, and some cutting of repeats.
The text is a different story. With lines like “Women do little but talk much,” Emanuel Schikaneder’s original libretto identifies men with reason and light and women with superstition and darkness. But there are hints that the sun figure, Sarastro, who has abducted Pamina from her mother, the Queen of the Night, is not the savior he appears to be. This version proposes that Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, now enemies, once lived in harmony, and that though each wants to rule the sky alone, they’re complementary to each other, like day and night, and halves of a whole.
Zach Borichevsky’s earnest goofball Tommy/Tamino grounds the production, with his resonant tenor and his engaging way of looking at the audience and taking us on his quest to rescue Pamina. Andrew Garland is a puppy-pleasing Patrick/Papageno in his plaid shirt and khakis tucked into boots; Neal Ferreira, in gray muscle shirt and tattoos, is a menacing Monty/Monostatos, but also comic when, transfixed by Papageno’s silver chimes, he does a funky minuet with Pamina. Deborah Selig is a radiant, spontaneous Pamela/Pamina. With her braided hair and her cardigan and print dress and boots, she conjures Judy Garland’s Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” And if you picture Tamino as the Scarecrow, Papageno as the Cowardly Lion, Monostatos as the Tin Man, Sarastro as the Wizard, and the Queen as the Witch of the West, you have a “Magic Flute” that’s Pamina’s journey as well as Tamino’s.
So Young Park is a seductive Queen of the Night, and superb in her coloratura; David Cushing’s Sarastro balances commanding with posturing; Chelsea Basler’s Shakespeare-quoting Papagena is sweetly insinuating. Director Major’s witty touches include having Tommy take a smartphone photo of Pamela and himself against a Mayan temple and Papageno swing a baseball bat as he envisions a clutch of male offspring.
Conklin’s set design features huge archways that move to create a labyrinth, a crescent moon and a sun disc, and a Mayan snake deity that turns double-headed. The chorus sings majestically from the pit; David Angus leads the orchestra in a vital reading with particularly energetic timpani. Friday the closing surge was such a rush, I wished they had repeated it during the curtain call.