Opera: Die Zauberflote, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh<img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/threestar.gif"></img >

This Flute is pretty hollow
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The story went that this performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, a joint production by the Italian theatres of Reggio Emilia, Ferrara and Modena, was to be the climax of this year's Edinburgh Festival. Goodness knows who invented this hype, but the Festival audience certainly believed it, grabbing every available seat on the first day of booking, in spite of prices more suggestive of Salzburg than Scotland.

The truth was that it was a modest little show, fielding some promising young singers in a rather traditional visualisation of the piece. Only the mise-en-scène showed extravagance. There were constant shifting flats and spectacular sets. The Queen of Night was enclosed in an immense moon like a crystal ball. The serpent was a giant Chinese dragon, operated by three men in the manner of a pantomime horse, and Sarastro's palace was in the form of a tiger's head. The three boys descended from the flies on a bridge spanning the stage. The machinery clanked and whirred.

All this was designed by Graziano Gregori, while the costumes, the work of Carla Teti, were, on the other hand, quite forgettable. Papageno, in drab, looked like a plumber. The three Ladies showed their legs in the picture used to sell the show, but this was the extent of their interest.

The draw, of course, was the conductor, the revered Claudio Abbado. But there was a problem here, too. The maestro chose to take everything slowly, sometimes very slowly indeed. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra followed him expertly, but his inexperienced cast couldn't handle it. They tried to push the speed forward, unable to relax into their phrases or enjoy their tone as, presumably, Abbado wished. It sounded like a master class by a great conductor to a group of students. Even the one artist who had some maturity and lyricism - Julia Kleiter as Pamina - was betrayed by nerves at the end of the unimaginably slow "Ach, ich fühl's", having accepted Abbado's spacious tempo.

In fact, there was not much to enjoy in the music. That left us with the comedy. Andrea Concetti, as Papageno, tried hard to raise a laugh but seemed coarse rather than witty, singing foggily and spoiling the duet "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen". His Papagena, Sylvia Schwartz, had real comic gifts, however, her croaky old woman hilariously over the top.

Abbado's son Daniele's direction got in the way of the action most of the time. When the magic bells charmed the slaves, he had rehearsed an elaborate but unfunny farce, and the joke was lost. The two armed men failed to sing with monumental grandeur because they were gingerly cradling trays of real fire. You felt for them.

Tamino was sung by a reliable tenor, Eric Cutler, with very little sensuality in his voice. Sarastro (Georg Zeppenfeld) was the right kind of dark bass but had very little gravitas, and looked like a schoolboy. The Queen of Night, Erika Miklosa, squeaked her high notes and sang the roulades with an oily legato. Only the three boys (they were real boys, though unnamed) deserved wholehearted praise.

This "grand climax" to the Festival was, in fact, thoroughly provincial, and even the chaotic curtain-calls were symptomatic of the lack of attention to detail. Or maybe they weren't expecting any curtain-calls.