Coliseum, London

Opera review: The Magic Flute

4.00

Simon McBurney successfully conveys this work's evanescent mystery

Simon McBurney is a one-off among theatre directors: there's an untamed wildness about his productions, sparked by a free-flowing imagination and a passionate zest for life. After the homespun surrealism of Complicite, he's pursued an increasingly zigzag course via Russian-Communist hyper-realism and delicately suggestive Japanese theatricality, so it's appropriate that he should make his second foray into opera with Mozart's most unfathomable work.

McBurney finds echoes of Shakespeare's Tempest everywhere in The Magic Flute. Without forcing comparisons, he sees in Sarastro a latter-day Prospero, in Tamino a recognisable Ferdinand, in Pamina a Miranda, in Monostatos a sort of Caliban, and in the three boys a strong hint of Ariel. Admitting that he often feels lost in what he calls the "unpredictable turbulence" of this opera, he promises to "make the music his compass".

The first thing that strikes you is the way he's changed the performance space, taking away the side-boxes to give a wider stage, and raising the orchestra to a level with the stalls, thus putting audience and musicians into intimate proximity. As the overture begins, a giant hand appears on a screen, chalking the dramatic agenda on a blackboard: with the video artist visible stage-left and the sound-effects artist with her box of tricks stage-right, it's as though we are watching the show being created on the spot. A video of Tamino's serpent snakes through chalked mountains, and he wrestles with it convincingly until rescued by three ladies in military fatigues. The only physical piece of scenery in Michael Levine's designs is a vast suspended platform which is in constant tilting motion; apart from a flock of doves suggested by fluttering sheets of paper, everything else is done with lighting, and images projected onto screens.

McBurney's plausible political subtext had been stated in advance: for him the Queen of the Night, as representative of the dying ancien regime, must be infirm and confined to a wheelchair. But the way Cornelia Gotz sings that role is refreshingly original, a very human mother with an unshowy sweet sound, and leaving the pyrotechnics to take care of themselves. The other roles are no less effectively conceived: Roland Wood's Northern Papageno is a pantomime comedian, but he duets poignantly with Devon Guthrie's pure-toned Pamina. Ben Jonson's homely Tamino is exquisitely sung, and in Steven Page we get an intensely dramatic Speaker, while James Creswell's Sarastro has a marvellously sonorous gravitas. Spirited conducting from Gergely Madaras ensures that everything works musically as it should; Stephen Jeffreys' translation combines Shakespearean borrowings with earthy contemporary wit.

McBurney's stagecraft is at times over-busy and his jokes can be laboured, but the second act he brilliantly hits his stride. He transforms the truth-telling boys into grey-headed ancients, conjures up a convincing modern version of an Enlightenment secret society, and turns the trials by fire and water into extraordinary visual events. This fantastical show will never be anyone’s definitive Flute, but it conveys more of its evanescent mystery than anything else has for a long time. That's quite an achievement.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing