The blandest show on earth

Acrobatics aside, David Freeman's circus-style staging of Mozart's `The Magic Flute' misses almost every trick in the book. By David Benedict
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David Freeman's Opera Factory productions of Mozart have been mixed. His Don Giovanni overemphasised nudity and sex but boasted some striking ideas; Marriage of Figaro was an interesting attempt at an Andalusian Upstairs, Downstairs; while his seaside Cosi fan tutte was an unqualified success. Like The Magic Flute, his latest Mozartian encounter, Cosi is beset with difficulties for modern audiences, not least its misogyny, but Freeman overcame them, creating one of the finest, funniest and most moving productions you could wish to see. Alas, no such superlatives can be used this time.

With its unique, unwieldy mix of the comic and the sublime, the opera has defeated any number of producers who either turn this profound work into a meaningless romp or concentrate on the search for enlightenment at the expense of laughter. Freeman uses the idea of a circus to give it dramatic unity but this causes far more problems than it solves.

His cast have evidently developed any number of circus skills and, as the orchestra switches to the allegro section of the overture, they burst into the ring, performing balancing acts, somersaulting and juggling; but it feels phoney. No matter how impressive the cartwheels, they just look like opera singers doing tricks.

Although he is not responsible for the ugly and unflattering costumes, Freeman has designed the show himself, setting up huge problems by providing just one entrance via a temple-like tent doubling as an inner stage. The Three Ladies have a certain amount of fun with jokey appearances through its curtains, but the space cramps the actors horribly, making Monostatos's attempted rape of the sleeping Pamina look clumsy and absurd. Similarly, the arrival of the Queen of the Night beneath an awkward canopy is bungled, lacking any sense of gravitas or power.

As for the climactic trials, when you discover a magic consultant credited in the programme, watching Andrew Burden as an over-eager, vocally unsettled Tamino and a rather cold Thora Einarsdottir as Pamina appear to run their hands through flames, the effect is merely tricksy. Any sense of an ordeal or a moral journey is banished. If you can't think of a way of staging these crucial moments effectively, why do the opera?

In an evening woefully short of good singing, Richard Chew's assured, flowing baritone as Papageno is a real pleasure and easily the best performance of the night. But, in the dialogue sections (which threaten to last for ever), even he struggles beneath the weight of Freeman's flaccid direction of his own (and Anne Ridler's) sluggish translation. There are times when the two seem utterly disconnected: "How can you stand there?" demands the Queen of a seated Pamina. Counterbalancing the racism, Monostatos (the Moor) is revealed as a white man blacking up; yet, moments later, Sarastro is railing against him for his blackness.

Nicholas Kok opts for fairly brisk tempi, a sensible decision given the lack of control or richness in most of the voices, but Jonathan Dove's reduced orchestration works wonders, opening up the textures of the score, an occasional solo cello mellifluously supporting a vocal line and a delightfully witty piano part filling out the sound.

If it's a night at the opera or at the circus you want, stick with the Marx Bros.

n QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) to 20 Sept; then touring