Die Zauberflöte, Glyndebourne

Animals but no magic
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The Independent Culture

Die Zauberflote's last showing at Glyndebourne was more in keeping with magic mushrooms than magic flutes. Peter Sellar's joyless hallucination raised hackles down in Sussex. For better or worse, Adrian Noble was never going to do that. But would he steer Mozart's lovable fable closer to Shakespeare, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? (Or, now that I've seen it, The Lion King?)

Die Zauberflote's last showing at Glyndebourne was more in keeping with magic mushrooms than magic flutes. Peter Sellar's joyless hallucination raised hackles down in Sussex. For better or worse, Adrian Noble was never going to do that. But would he steer Mozart's lovable fable closer to Shakespeare, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? (Or, now that I've seen it, The Lion King?)

Because the one thing that can be said for certain about Noble's staging is that you'll come away humming the animals. Tamino's magic flute serenades as splendid an assortment of them as you'll find outside Disney. The designer Anthony Ward has channelled all his resources into making the most of them. But they're on stage for three minutes out of some 180, and not much else about this show charms or enchants us as they do.

There are also the three boys who show Tamino and Papageno the way. They are another diversion, gliding through the action on a triple-tandem bicycle or hanging from giant balloons enjoying well-earned ice creams. And even at one point delivering a Glyndebourne picnic. But is this Magic Flute really just about the incidentals? Well, you know what they say about working with children and animals.

Sadly, a little of them goes a long way in this pretty, innocuous, but painfully slow account of Mozart's charmer. At least the right orchestra is in the pit and we can enjoy Vladimir Jurowski's crisply articulate rendition of the score, with those characterful woodwinds and not-so-characterful split-end horns to the fore. Nothing wrong with his pacing, save perhaps a tendency to favour uniformity over contrast in his choice of tempos. A sense of sameness pervades the evening. Or is that an illusion created by the crushing slowness of the dialogue? It isn't a separate event, it isn't Shakespeare. And even if it were, Mr Noble, why the reverence?

It's a problem with non-native German-speakers. This is one opera that (with a smart translation) works a treat in the vernacular (witness the recent ENO revival). So many of the jokes, so much of the charm, is in the delivery. And much of the responsibility for that is carried by Papageno. It's a great role for an experienced singer/performer - with the emphasis on the latter. Glyndebourne chose the New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, joint-winner of the 2002 Kathleen Ferrier Award. And it's way too soon for him. Looking like the Jolly Green Giant gone East, he works too hard to win our confidence, sympathy and chuckles. Playing funny doesn't make you funny. Nor can charm be manufactured. And I'm worried that the voice is already sounding too old for his young shoulders.

So where does that leave us? Marooned like Papageno amid the fluorescent gauzes and sliding panels, waiting for the next lovely number to come around. Lisa Milne's Pamina sings with her whole heart, nurturing favourite phrases and leaning into aching top notes to give them that little extra value. Her aria, "Ach, ich fuhl's" was the more touching for Tamino's proximity, longing to embrace her but forbidden from doing so. Pavol Breslik's Tamino was fresh and bright, and blessed with sensitive shadings.

As for the forces for good and ill, Cornelia Gotz (who might have been more extravagantly dressed-to-kill and better distinguished from her ladies-in-waiting) dispatched the Queen of the Night's vehement coloratura with ear-popping aplomb, but at the other end of the tonal spectrum, Peter Rose's Sarastro failed to find benevolence in his bottom notes, and phrased prosaically.

It was hard to believe that the sun would come out on his account - but it did. And even the lions danced a celebratory gavotte. It was their show - they and the other dumb animals - but what does that say, or rather, not say, about this rather bland endeavour?

Glyndebourne Festival (01273 813813), to 29 August

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