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.

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