The Magic Flute - relay, Clapham Picture House, London<br/>The King's Consort, Wigmore Hall, London

Transatlantic Mozart
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The Independent Culture

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera of New York inaugurated a series of live satellite relays to 94 cinemas in North America and Europe with Julie Taymor's 100-minute version of The Magic Flute. In the Clapham Picture House, twentysomethings rubbed shoulders with the greying acolytes of high art. Chocolate wrappers rustled, ice softly clinked in plastic cups; then, in the cosiest and least pretentious auditorium of my opera-going career, there was a collective gasp of excitement as the orchestra appeared on screen, tuning up over 2,000 miles away.

Instead of being a long, confusing opera, this family-friendly Flute is a short, confusing opera. With the exception of a mistimed cut from Katie Couric's pre-recorded introduction to the live relay, which resulted in a bizarre modulation in the overture, the abridgement proved reasonably polished. You might mourn the loss of "Bei Männern", the evisceration of "Dies Bildnis", and the excision of the pivotal quartet between Pamina and the Three Boys. But to the average six-year-old, the results are no more unbelievable than an episode of Power Rangers.

George Tsypin's flashy designs offer a pick-and-mix assortment of fantastic imagery from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Marvel Comics, Manga, Dr Seuss and Japanese theatre. (Or, as Jonathan Miller put it in an interview with The New York Times, "silly, glamorous, folkloric nonsense".) If the object is to educate Manhattan schoolchildren in the Met's high-gloss house style, Taymor's production is an unmitigated success. If, on the other hand, the Met wants to develop an international audience of cinema-literate young adults, it will need to address both the quality of the acting and the style of the camera direction.

In the inaugural relay, there was little chance to appreciate the full spectacle of Taymor's staging, and too many opportunities to see the limited dramatic talents of the cast. Only Nathan Gunn (Papageno) and Greg Fedderly (Monastatos) would cut the mustard in musical theatre. JD McClatchy's English dialogue proved taxing for René Pape (Sarastro), distracted by a costume resembling a giant origami napkin of the sort favoured by provincial hotels in the 1970s, while Matthew Polenzani (Tamino) seemed equally out of sorts in his Shogun wig. Both spoke awkwardly and sang well, though not as well as the stunning young Speaker, who is sadly uncredited on the Met website.

On the basis of this broadcast, it is difficult to say whether Taymor lacks interest in personenregie, or whether some of the greatest productions I have seen live would look equally unconvincing on a cinema screen. Ying Huang (Pamina), who sang most touchingly, had the glazed eyes of a woman weighing up whether to take her coat to the dry-cleaners this week or next. Erika Miklósa, a pin-point accurate Queen of the Night and the only singer to retain every note Mozart wrote for her character, pulled faces that should never be seen in close-up, let alone in high definition. Problematic, too, were the extra-musical noises picked up: the patter of pointe shoes, the inexorable rumbling of the Perspex revolve and the susurrations of the more complicated costumes.

James Levine's conducting was smoothly cultivated and rich in detail, with some fruity sounds from the lower strings, and a lean, clean woodwind section. If the Met orchestra sounds divine, its elderly chorus is a disgrace. General manager Peter Gelb should be applauded for this hi-tech democratisation of opera, but when he's done persuading the world's cinemas to repeat this experiment with broadcasts of I Puritani, Eugene Onegin, Il Trittico, Tan Dun's The First Emperor, and The Barber of Seville, he should take a long hard look at his resident chorus. Would I have enjoyed them more had I been in New York? Probably not. But I'd definitely go to Clapham again.

Back in the Wigmore Hall, The King's Consort played out the old year with Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos. Directing from one of two harpsichords, which gave handsome support for the single strings, Robert King wove some playful dynamic contrasts. If the effect was a little Carols for Choirs in the First Concerto, each work tripped along gracefully enough, with some deliciously expressive recorder playing from Rebecca Miles in the Second and Fourth Concertos, sublime sounds from violist Jane Rogers in the Sixth and Third, and an outstanding performance throughout from violinist Stéphanie-Marie Degand.

Though I could have thrown my programme at the stage in frustration at cellist Jonathan Cohen's blowsy bulges, flippant phrasing and slapdash intonation, and thrown it even harder at harpsichordist Matthew Halls for his appalling end-of-the-pier, winks-to-the-audience theatrics before the final flurry of notes in the glorious cadenza of the first movement of the Fifth Concerto, Degand's playing is what stayed with me. Each note was a perfect oval, each phrase stylishly, radiantly, interestingly played. This young woman has everything - vivacity, authority, intelligence, a ravishing sound and deep musicality - and was a total joy to hear.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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