OPERA / Comic turn: Julian Rushton on Opera North's new Magic Flute in Leeds

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The Independent Culture
Attitudes to Mozart's deathless problem opera turn on whether the Papageno plot is your main concern; if you don't mind him and Papagena upstaging the coronation of Tamino and Pamina, you will enjoy Annabel Arden's lively new production for Opera North in Leeds. Mozart (who once called a scoffer at the ceremonial scenes 'Papageno') may have been more concerned with the inauguration of a new era for the Holy Order, overcoming darkness and misogyny. Somewhere between extremes of levity and solemnity lies an ideal Magic Flute; this is not it.

But apart from Jeremy Sams's too-liberal translation of the sung text (the dialogue, evolved in collaboration between Arden and the performers, goes better), it can hardly be called a distortion. John Rath's Sarastro suggests less a wise ruler in need of a successor than a virile, even sensual, man in the prime of life, whose undisguised desire for Pamina is hardly less of a threat to her than Monostatos (as whom, grotesque but not black, Paul Wade sang better than his master, who had difficulty focusing the low notes).

The costumes are a mishmash: the boys change from sailor suits to white Indian-style novices' uniform; Tamino wears a tourist's kit; the fine chorus made the brotherhood, apart from Jonathan Best's nobly sung Orator, look a motley crew; and the Queen of the Night's ladies, played with spirit by Kate Flowers, Teresa Shaw and Frances McCafferty, abandoned mystique for frumpishness.

Otherwise the staging looks well. Rae Smith's stairs and furniture constructed of huge tomes are presumably meant to convey something, but are undeniably efficient in moving the cast around. In the background, a starlit night is symbolically covered by a mystic sun, and the trials by fire and water are predictably tackled with dry ice and coloured light.

The audience clearly enjoyed the show and could be forgiven its untimely laughter as an insouciant attitude to the demonic and transcendent was encouraged from the start. Instead of a symbolic serpent, Tamino was pursued by an engagingly tubby dinosaur: clearly it only wanted to play. It took a well-sung and earnest performance by the personable William Burden to overcome this first impression. Eileen Hulse is a light- voiced Queen of the Night, but generated considerable energy in her revenge aria; as with Sarastro, the production makes her engage physically with her daughter, making the girl's exploitation seem particularly callous.

Linda Kitchen's exceptionally human Pamina abandons virginal passivity in favour of passion. Her singing lacks the purity usual for Pamina, yet she compelled pin- dropping stillness in her arias; and the suicide scene gained intensity from the evidently sexual basis of her misery. It also benefited from the trio of boys; Mozart had these roles sung by women, but the clarity, audibility and diction of Christopher Domett, Malcolm Lorimer and Peter Wright (from the Manchester Boys' Choir) improve on authenticity.

Also lifting the performance well above the routine is Andrew Parrott's crisp conducting and a splendidly sung Papageno: ably supported by Susan Bisatt's long- legged Papagena, apparently dropping in from Cabaret, William Dazeley's athleticism, belligerent hedonism and charm are worth going some way to enjoy.

In rep at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0532 459351) to 3 June, then touring