MUSIC / Shut your eyes and think of Mozart

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'SEEN HER?' explodes Papageno in Die Zauberflote. 'Seen the Queen of the Night? What mortal man has ever seen her?' Well, the entire audience in Martin Duncan's production for a start, because the said Queen has been peering through an illuminated window at the back of the set for the past 10 minutes; and it's a bad misjudgement, undermining the dramatic impact of the moment when she does, officially, arrive on stage with thunder in attendance. But then, this production is crazy with misjudgements - and a cheap post- modern kitsch that made me squirm when it was first done at Scottish Opera last December. Many liked it; I didn't.

And I like it less now that it has travelled south to Covent Garden where its tacky camp (the Queen a Joan Collins clone on a sofa, Monostatos with spiky genitalia in permanent erection, temple brethren with their trouser legs masonically rolled up . . .) looks even worse. I could live with Ken Lee's set designs: they begin promisingly in vibrant, Matisse- like colours, beautifully lit by Paul Pyant. But they degenerate into chic props for the worst kind of theatrical didacticism that tells you things (in letters 10ft high) you knew already. And like the nasty trio of young women who substitute for the Three Boys, the production style is loaded with a smugness that obliterates all charm. Tamino's animals are deconstructed into bacterial blobs. The pace of the piece is disrupted by squeezing frantic bits of business (Papageno catching birds, Monostatos enduring bastinado) into space that can't accommodate it. And the movement overall is scruffy.

Vocally it's a happier story. Amanda Roocroft's Pamina is a gorgeous sound, quite heavy but able to float arching phrases with beguiling delicacy. Kurt Streit (Tamino) has a lean, bright, cleanly focused purity. Robert Lloyd (Sarastro) is one of the few basses around who can sustain good tonal quality across the compass of 'In diesen heil'gen Hallen'. Sumi Jo's Queen of the Night delivers her top Fs with pin-sharp precision. And Peter Coleman-Wright's Papageno is rich in colour and body - excepting the vogelfanger aria where he's given too much ornithological business to cope with incidentals like singing. The period performance specialist Andrew Parrott makes an equivocal Covent Garden conducting debut, not quite in command of the stage ensembles but stylistically convincing with the orchestra.

Paul Daniel is convincing, too, at Opera North in the week's other Mozart opening: a production of Il Re Pastore (aka The Shepherd King), squeezed into the schedule to replace a promised but postponed Eugene Onegin. Il Re Pastore is a comparatively easy piece to put together. One of Mozart's adolescent Salzburg scores, written at 19 to flatter a passing Hapsburg, it miniaturises the formalities of opera seria down to the pocket-sized pastoral charm of a morality that tells how peasant virtues are rewarded - and, more particularly, how a benevolent overlord acknowledges his mishandling of certain matrimonial arrangements and bows to the dictates of true love. It is effectively La Clemenza di Tito in embryo, minus the choruses, ensembles, homicidal conflicts and (it must be said) any semblance of dramatic energy. In the Mozartian canon it counts as a charming aside - a serenata designed for simple presentation, probably without sets. Opera North's director David McVicar stages it in appropriately simple terms, in a rococo courtyard peopled by Dresden china children, glove-puppet sheep and wall-to-wall Arcadian cuteness. It actually looks rather good, and better than it sounds because the singing is undistinguished - apart from Joan Rodgers, who is enchanting in the castrato role of the shepherd and raises the musical currency with 'L'amero saro costante', the one aria Il Re Pastore is known for. But even she is below her best: the voice sounds veiled and tremulant. So the main listening pleasure comes from the orchestra, which plays this porcelain music with an unexpected elegance.

According to the South Bank Board there hasn't been a song recital in the Festival Hall for 16 years - for good reason. There are a lot of seats to sell, a lot of space to fill. Last weekend Jessye Norman did both, with the grandest, most glamorous song recital London has witnessed for a long time. In fact, it was so big with grandeur that the Schumann and Strauss songs in the first half were overwhelmed by it all, and I reached the interval disturbed by performances that didn't seem to be coming from the text. Simple, direct, intimate statements were inflated into stately semaphore; unspecial lines were jacked up with explosive emphasis. Strauss's nativity song, 'The Holy Kings', registered like an earthquake at the Manger (all the text said was 'The oxen lowed'). But after the interval all my objections crumbled in the face of a great artist doing great work. The sheer vocal quality of her selection from Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi was unforgettable, the richness softened down to a luxuriously deep and cossetted ardour. Schoenberg's Brettl Lieder are second-rate cabaret material but were brilliantly delivered. And the Negro spiritual encores were magnificent. The audience was on its feet each time; and I hope it was standing, too, for the pianist Geoffrey Parsons who was marginalised by the presentation (she got the spotlight, he didn't) but a true and worthy partner. He alone saved the Strauss and Schumann from absurdity. And in the rest he was immaculate, responsive and (no mean feat with Jessye Norman next to you) a source of interest in his own right.

Finally - music as punishment. Beethoven had a prisoners' chorus for Fidelio, Pimlico Opera has one for its new production of Guys and Dolls, and Pimlico Opera's is real: a collective of inmates from HM Prison Wandsworth who support a strong cast of professional singers and do it astonishingly well under the janitorial baton of Wasfi Kani. Pimlico Opera has been working in prisons for some years now. The productions are open to the public, the prison repertory light (Sweeny Todd, West Side Story, something the prisoners can identify with) and their track record virtually flawless. It's easy to romanticise the achievement of ventures like this, but what they do is good; and Guys and Dolls has a punchily direct appeal with big, close-on performances from excellent young singers like Andrew Rivera and Keel Watson. Mary King - a trooper - is adorable as Miss Adelaide. And if the Noo Yoik accents wander off course . . . well, the spirit doesn't. Honest guv'nor, it's a fair cop.

'Die Zauberflote' continues at the Royal Opera House, 071-240 1066, Tues & Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)