MUSIC; Summoned by bells in the night A flute to lighten our darkness On the sheer threshold of eternal night

Die Zauberflte Teatro Regio, Parma
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The gilded interior of the exquisite Teatro Regio evokes all manner of 18th-century theatrical magic: painted drop-cloths, elaborate stage machinery, Mozart's Die Zauberflte as it was first imagined and first realised. But producer Stephen Medcalf and conductor John Eliot Gardiner bring us a Die Zauberflte as we might first have dreamt it.

Beyond the Teatro Regio's ornate proscenium is only darkness, receding darkness. No enlightenment, no light. Black is the colour of "eternal night", the threshold of sleep and the mysterious subconscious. The "three boys" who accompany Papageno and Tamino on their journey into the unknown are spirited there in pyjamas, still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Their destination is our destination: Dreamland - an elusive, transient place to be.

And so the overture strikes up its sombre chords, while beams of light illuminate a row of props and symbols displayed across the foot of the stage. These are the keys to unlocking Die Zauberflte: Pamina's picture - still an empty frame - an apple, a dagger and, of course, the magic bells and magic flute. In the darkness, a mystic circle of initiates awaits admission to the temples of Wisdom, Reason, and Nature. We, too, wait and bear witness. Until, from their midst, emerge six mime dancers from the Pilobolus Dance Theater.

They are effectively the entire mise en scne of this conception, the liberators of our imagination. From their bodily contortions and amazing lifts, we make our own pictures: be it the wild beast in pursuit of Tamino, the animals and birds of the forest, the portals of the temple or the giant figures who stand guard there, the tree of life where a branch can become a vine around Papageno's neck, or the fire and water of the lovers' trials. The Queen of the Night is borne aloft by a moving mass of bodies, the sequinned strands of her gown drawn out like some celestial starfish. While, in a nice touch at the close of Act 1, the brutal Moor, Monostatos, is up-ended for his beating, only to be spared by Sarastro in a frozen tableau moments before the black-out.

The advantages of such a staging are plain in a touring production which will become "semi-staged" upon leaving Italy. Whether or not Romeo Gigli's surprisingly downbeat costumes (yes, yet another Italian couturier hops on the operatic bandwagon) will make more of an effect in smaller venues has yet to be seen. I doubt they'd raise eyebrows in the High Street, leave alone the exotic, anything-goes world of opera.

And the production needs to smarten up its ideas in Act 1. Some of the dialogue seemed to be waiting for laughs that never came. Gardiner sets the right tempo with his harum-scarum run at the overture's main allegro. That's the spirit of Act 1 - but it takes some holding down. It's not often that this opera's protracted second act proves more, not less, absorbing than its first.

But perhaps the poetry and simple balletic beauty of this Flute are what really single it out. For sure, Gerald Finley finds more pathos in Papageno than most: above all, in his moment of rejection and then of compassion for the "old woman" (alias Papagena). And it's beautifully sung, too. His all-you-need-is-love aria in Act 2 is in real earnest, the glockenspiel ritornelli growing visually as well as aurally more elaborate, as if Mozart himself were showing off for our benefit. Michael Schade's Tamino has the pint-sized heroics, but needs to find the same ingratiating tone quality in his full-voiced legatos (a shade dry) that he finds in his head-voice. And, once you get used to the small scale of the voice, Christiane Oelze's Pamina is lovely: "Ach, ich fuhl's", that most testing of all heartbreak arias, left just enough unsung. Harry Peeters' Sarastro was striking only for his unearthly vocal quality, and a plainly out-of-sorts Nicola Sharkey fell victim to the Queen of the Night's first aria only to pick up her dropped stitches in the second.

As ever, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir were of a quality that's too easy to take for granted these days. By the time they reach London in July, they will doubtless have found even more colours with which to surprise and beguile us: the muted brass suspensions in the Act 2 prelude never sounded this way on modern instruments. Which all goes to show that the "Age of Enlightenment" can still mean something to us.

Edward Seckerson

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