OPERA / Playing to its strengths: Raymond Monelle welcomes the lightness of Martin Duncan's production of The Magic Flute for Scottish Opera in Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST sight, Ken Lee's designs for The Magic Flute seemed to come from a comic book for little children. There were windows and doors without houses, big mushrooms, with hallways and mountains sketched gaily on the backcloth. The more you looked, the more you found aspects of witty eclecticism. Egyptian priests mixed with suggestions of Japanese samurai, visual echoes of Stanley Spencer, Cocteau and Dali.

The outstanding achievement was a feeling of light-heartedness in an opera that is usually a mingling of vulgar farce with po-faced symbolism. The symbolism was there (in the colour coding of male and female elements, for example) but, like everything else, it was gently mocked. So, the musical instruments of the priests were serpents - evidently a reference to Tamino's having been pursued by one - and the Queen of Night (Jennifer Rhys-Davies, drab in the cavatinas but crystalline in coloratura), personifying the luxury of the church, was discovered reclining on a sofa.

Best of all, Simon Keenlyside's Papageno was a masterpiece of comic intelligence. His idea was to look and move like a bird. And he called on the resources of circus, mime, clownish pathos and funny walks to set off a style of speech that lay somewhere between Paul Daniels and Dennis Skinner. As well as being so much more sophisticated, it was infinitely funnier than the usual lumpish buffoon we get in this part. During his birdcatcher's song, birds were hurled from the wings and he caught every one. It was masterly.

This overall lightness of touch was sustained by the producer, Martin Duncan (although he occasionally strayed into over-production; constant business during the Queen's second aria robbed the sudden conclusion, set by Mozart in a shock of recitative, of its effect). There is very little you can do with the nonsense of the priests' debate or the scene of the ordeals, so these were left unstressed; but the producer added some points for discussion, as when Sarastro found himself drawn physically to Pamina during 'In diesen heiligen Hallen' and had to stand firm against temptation. It was apt, for this was a young-looking Sarastro, a bit severe and terrifying, still full of fundamentalist tension, Gidon Saks's towering figure making a stronger impact than his spacious dramatic baritone, which lacked richness in the extreme low register.

The only really ideal voice was Paul Nilon's; in spite of his contending with a slight huskiness, his bright-hued tenor portrayed a Tamino who seemed an eager schoolboy. His Pamina, Susannah Waters, looked a mere slip of a girl and sang effectively, circumspectly, as though excelling at a master class.

The orchestra played crisply, Nicholas McGegan driving it usually at breakneck speeds but indulging in vertiginous stops and starts. The opera has never seemed so short. But if you scarcely noticed the great tunes as they flashed by, your awareness of the sham philosophy was equally reduced, leaving the performance fresh, colourful and boyish.

In rep at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until 10 February (041-332 9000).