The Magic Flute/WNO, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

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The Independent Culture

Dominic Cooke's new Welsh National Opera production of The Magic Flute places Mozart's philosophical pantomime in a Surrealist dream-world. The setting is a Magritte-inspired room - perhaps the dreamer's brain? - with cloud-painted walls, nine identical doors, a giant lobster for Schikaneder's giant snake, and a dozen or more trap-doors in the floor. Thus Tamino's Jungian journey to enlightenment is here an exercise in thinking out of the box.

Dominic Cooke's new Welsh National Opera production of The Magic Flute places Mozart's philosophical pantomime in a Surrealist dream-world. The setting is a Magritte-inspired room - perhaps the dreamer's brain? - with cloud-painted walls, nine identical doors, a giant lobster for Schikaneder's giant snake, and a dozen or more trap-doors in the floor. Thus Tamino's Jungian journey to enlightenment is here an exercise in thinking out of the box.

Since Nicholas Hytner's 1989 ENO production cornered the market in intelligent prettiness, few directors have dared to present a Magic Flute that is less than cute. Cooke too has his cute moments - a broadsheet-reading lion and stiletto-wearing chicken - but subverts images which are merely diverting with those that are more disturbing. Look at WNO's excellent trio of Ladies (Elizabeth Donovan, Julianne Young and Antonia Sotgiu). Not only do they sport whorish crimson petticoats beneath their prim Edwardian nannies' uniforms, their faces have the greenish pallor of cadavers. Indeed, most of the cast appear to have shaken off their mortal coils. You can almost smell the embalming fluid. Small wonder that fresh-faced Tamino (Peter Wedd), pink-cheeked Pamina (Rebecca Evans), and their feather-brained companions Papageno (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) and Papagena (Claire Hampton) have no idea who to trust.

Within the strict confines of a cleverly constructed set, Cooke's direction is necessarily tight. The Speaker (Matthew Hargreaves) is given unusual prominence, changing light to darkness with a click of his fingers. The first scene of Act II is bright, fresh and interesting and not at all the rhubarby dozefest it often is, while our hero and heroine's terror of their parent figures is palpable. Saving the exogenous spoken dialogue for Monostatos's disgruntled employees, Cooke has made this most familiar, least understood of Mozart's operas newly gripping.

Notwithstanding Katarzyna Donaldska's tinny, transistor-radio Queen of the Night and three very nervous Boys, the cast is excellent. Though Evans is sometimes self-indulgent with her tempi, her Pamina is intelligently sung and glorious at the top. Wedd is a happier Tamino than he was an Alfredo, Brindley Sherratt a faultless, enigmatic Sarastro, and Rhodes's gleaming Papageno makes every word of Jeremy Sams's translation count. The choruses are well sung, the orchestral playing packed with delicious details. My sole reservation? Conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce's seemingly random application of rubato.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'The Magic Flute': Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (0870 040 2000), to 25 May then touring

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