A Magic Flute, Barbican Theatre, London
Kommilitonen! Royal Academy of Music, London

Treasured Mozart opera stripped of its sparkle by veteran director Peter Brook, but a student production proves scintillating

When director Peter Brook's revolutionary book The Empty Space was published in 1968, it transformed expectations of what theatre could do. More than 40 years later, empty space remains central to his work, but its potency has dissolved as his vision has – flatteringly – become the norm. His stripped-down Magic Flute, freely adapted (and retitled) by Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer-pianist Franck Krawczyk, plays out as if in a daze, its diffident tone taken not from the emphatic E-flat chords of Mozart's overture but the idling arpeggios of his D minor Fantasie, as quoted by Krawczyk in what was formerly Act II.

Shorn of its orchestra, trios, quintets and choruses, Mozart's opera mysteriously retains its longueurs in the meandering A Magic Flute. Two actors (William Nadylam and Abdou Ouolguem) serve as birds, animals, slaves, boys and ladies, one with more stage presence than the rest of the cast put together, the other with impressive dreadlocks. Brook's vocalists move softly on bare feet, rarely singing above mezzo piano, and Krawczyk's piano accompaniments often feel extemporised. Neither the sung German nor the spoken French is delivered with any urgency, and arias and dialogue fade into vacant ellipses. In 1968, this barefoot Mozart might have been radical. In 2011, it seems like whimsy: a riff, a spliff, and not The Magic Flute.

The nostalgia in Kommilitonen! ("Young Blood!") was more carefully concealed, though no less pervasive. Commissioned for the Royal Academy of Music and New York's Juilliard School, Peter Maxwell Davies's student protest opera lives up to the exclamation marks in its title. It has spirituals, swastikas, red-necks and jazz! Arias, duets, trios, quintets! There's a Red Army marching band! A pop-up Chairman Mao! A double chorus! A rousing finale in praise of Freedom! An erhu! And lots of beastly non-bookish people tormenting nice bookish people!

David Pountney's libretto darts between Nazi Germany, the Deep South and China's Cultural Revolution at breakneck speed, but with clarity. There is undeniable and immediate poignancy in the stories of Sophie Scholl (Nathalie Chalkley), executed for distributing leaflets decrying Hitler's policies, James Meredith (Adam Marsden), who braved the violence of the segregationists to be the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, and the quieter protest of a Chinese History student (Rachel Kelly), whose parents were beaten to death for being intellectuals. Yet the clatter of authorial indignation is so loud that there is little space to reflect on ordinary cowardice. The Red Guard cadet (Runette Botha) can expound on her terror and pleasure in violence, but the Munich University janitor (Jonathan McGovern) who betrayed Scholl has one line.

Diverting as it is, the opera is simplistic. This would be understandable were it written by, not for, students. So much emphasis is placed on books in Pountney's staging that it is hard to escape the suspicion that he believes a well-stocked library confers moral grace. History is full of literate thugs, but you won't find them in Kommilitonen!. The Dostoevsky scene could have been lifted from The Producers, with the Evangelist (Stephen Aviss) in a white SS uniform and the Inquisitor (John-Owen Miley-Read) in a black SS uniform. Meanwhile, Max attempts to convey Meredith's strength of character in music that is a homespun hair's breadth from Porgy and Bess. Orchestrally, vocally, theatrically, the performance is a triumph, but one that is not without compromise. Though conductor Jane Glover makes a spirited argument for colour-blind casting, I was shocked to see not one black singer on stage. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a music student, there were five. And we all had grants. But that's a subject for another protest, if not another opera.

Next Week

Anna Picard peers into the private lives of Richard and Pauline Strauss in Scottish Opera's Intermezzo

Classical Choice

I Fagiolini join The Feinstein Ensemble for Actus Tragicus tonight, as part of the annual Bach Weekend at London's Purcell Room. Giselle Allen takes the title role in Northern Ireland Opera's unusual three-venue, site-specific Tosca in Derry, from Thursday. Oliver Mears' itinerant staging moves from St Columb's Cathedral to the Guildhall and St Columb's Hall.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'