The Magic Flute

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The Independent Culture

It's difficult not to muse on Whitehall's latest upsets when Sarastro, Mozart's masonic answer to Prospero, predicts that the lie culture will hold sway no more. Or not to be aghast when, in Christopher Cowell's bracing production for British Youth Opera of The Magic Flute, Henriika Grondahl's finely sung Pamina stabs David Soar's limping Sarastro in the gut.

Serves the old curmudgeonright. Playing Sarastro as a misogynist authoritarian works OK up to a point; when the wheelchair and drip arrive, you know this staging is in danger of over-egging the pudding.

That was the underlying problem with both of BYO's fairy-tale offerings, a Flute and a Dream so brimming with onstage ideas (some good) that they all but muddied the music.

But for any company to sustain two huge-cast summer productions is a huge achievement. Here were two vital casts utterly at ease with an audience, interacting like mad and projecting vocally, if not verbally (the other big negative), with the assurance of the young pros that they are.

Top drawer were the New Zealander Ana James's knockout Queen of the Night, and Rebecca Bottone, scion of a great operatic house, Surrey Opera's recent Vixen and lately an effervescent Eros in the Royal Academy's Poppea. What a voice; what a personality.

Costume and designs were splendid. The one crass bit of direction (by Martin Lloyd-Evans) was letting stage effects and frenetic activity diminish Oberon's two best arias. When you have as exquisite a countertenor voice as Simon Baker, mellifluous as a fledgling James Bowman, it is idiocy not to hand him the stage. He - and Shakespeare's words - are worth it.

Marc Labonnette's bulbous Bottom bellowed like Terfel, and a jolly good sound it was. Wendy Dawn Thompson's Hermia took the lovers' honours, with Martene Grimson's Helena in hot pursuit.

I wish I could laud Flute's Ladies' trio, but I can't. The movement director, Isabel Mortimer, armed them with two brilliant routines and one repetitive one. Cowell's shifting blocks were ingenious, but these bubbly Norns fast became a bore. The three boys knocked them for six: not boys, actually, but three glorious girls togged out as cub scouts. Best of the real boys among a personable quartet of Brittenesque fairies was a striking boy alto from the Bromley Boy Singers.

Lest we forget the orchestra, top marks to the bassoonist Rebecca Stockwell, the clarinettist Helen Paskins and the first trumpet Ryan Matthews. Super strings, too, for both Britten's sinuously eerie preludes.

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' ends tonight (020-7960 4242)

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