Travelling Opera, Peter Knapp's versatile group, is sticking mostly to theatres for the current spring tour. Even so, the company has cheerfully stopped off this week at the Barbican in London and set up Mozart's Magic Flute, not on either of the two fine, purpose-built stages, but in the concert hall. If times get harder you will probably find them at it in the foyer, and their zest will carry the day.
Ingenuity and adaptability have always marked Travelling Opera shows. Symbolic open pyramids and spheres, which make up Venetia Davan Wetton's opening landscape for The Magic Flute, rebuild quickly into rooms and temples, with the cast as scene-shifters. Soloists double as chorus, one of the Three Boys turns into Papagena before your eyes, and at the beginning, the Queen of the Night's attendants appear in disguise as the serpent itself, which then simply auto-destructs. That makes a neat twist, though it's a bit more confusing later when they lend a hand in putting Tamino and Pamina through their trials by fire and water. Whose side are they on?
Knapp, directing his own English translation, tells the basic story as clearly as I've ever seen this metaphysical panto told - the little short-cuts actually help. The philosophy boils down to English common sense, which at least means you know why things happen. It has its rough and ready moments. Papageno's pipes sound from one side, and the man himself promptly appears on the other. The trials, with a few yards of cloth waved in the air to the sound of crackling loudspeakers and a distant filling kettle, are about as frightening as the January sales; but then they always are. What matters is that the down-to-earth characters ring true, and the real magic - a hush as Tamino contemplates his 'endless night', a stillness as the slow march plays - flows freely.
Tamino, Timothy Robinson, here and elsewhere produces some of the evening's most ardent, lyrical singing. He behaves like a pompous prat, especially to Papageno, but at least that makes Sarastro only the second biggest bore on stage. And with Alan Fairs pacing and phrasing his arias quite beautifully, the austere old priest for once has the makings of a warm and wonderful human being. Well, almost. That's really what Papageno is for, and Richard Morris's air of guileless near-panic and neat line in stage business - when he sees the dead serpent he leaps straight up into Tamino's arms - makes him the popular hit of the evening.
Nicole Tibbels makes a vocally imposing Queen of the Night, dramatic but conscientious about the coloratura. There are strong, straightforward portrayals of the Speaker (Alasdair Baker), the Armed Men (Stephen Crook, Graham Case), and the old villain Monostatos (Tomos Ellis, done up like a Mediterranean brigand, with his cronies in pink masks with big noses). Linda Clemens, a very English-looking Pamina, sings out firmly but takes her big aria too slowly to sustain it with shape or fluency. Moira Young deals deftly with her transformations into Papagena; the Boys, as a singing trio, blend better than the Queen's attendants.
Out on one side of the stage, a band of 13 plays with some finesse, and Ian Watson conducts with a quick, light hand. The reduced orchestration, done by Richard Balcombe, keeps an idiomatic balance between strings and wind in a sound-world rather like The Marriage of Figaro. Just one trombone would make all the difference, but nevertheless, the spirit of Mozart is alive and well.
Barbican, tonight 7.30pm (071-638 8891). Then tours from February to April
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