OPERA The Magic Flute Holland Park Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Which opera by Mozart would you prefer: Die Zauberflote or The Magic Flute? How about a bit of both? European Chamber Opera's staging has spoken dialogue in English, but is sung in German: except, that is, when the Three Boys sing. Their German, is presumably unreliable, so they sing in English. It's an unhelpful compromise, as if to say, "All you need to know is in the spoken bits. When they're singing, they're not really saying anything."

That's an open invitation to indulge in operatic am-dram and, sure enough, Robert Chevara's direction is all generalised gestures, formalised expressions, leaving his singers adrift. Which is a shame, because there are sparks of real talent here and, in this setting, they should catch fire. Under its awning, Holland Park Theatre is not completely immune to extraneous clatter, but noises from beyond only add to the sense of being in a special, perhaps even a magical, place. Over there, the babble of kids playing at conductors and orchestras; above, the roar of giant metal birds contrasts with the scream of rutting peacocks, apparently taking their cue from the stage. Indeed, so insistent was their display that Papageno, bird- catcher by trade, couldn't but incorporate them into his spiel.

As the sun set, Giuseppe di Iorio's stage lighting slowly transformed the setting, but the production still couldn't quite deliver. Katrina Lindsey's single backdrop divides the stage into three landscapes, moving successive scenes from one to the other, an effective solution to the problems posed by the wide, shallow stage. Even so, the singers might benefit from having smaller spaces to dominate. This is a young cast, not entirely Anglophone, although everyone's English is impeccable. The subtlest of sound enhancement ensures that every voice carries across the gusts and eddies from the orchestra, firmly conducted by Andrea Quinn. At times, co-ordination between voices and instruments sounded loose, but will no doubt tighten as the run continues.

Chevara's staging has lowly Papageno at its centre, while Sarastro's band of distinctly unmerry men are a club you wouldn't want to join. It's a view I sympathise with, but it might be going too far to have Panito Iconomou's Sarastro, in sarong and bottle-blond hair, address his cult through mics held by kneeling acolytes. If he's so clearly a false messiah, would Tamino and Pamina bother with the membership rituals? While Iconomou's soft-grained bass hasn't yet got the weight for the role, he's an engaging presence. Mark Evans's Welsh Papageno, rolling his "r"s like some demented emigre from Llareggub, is rather too hearty, but he's a natural comedian, bursting with presence. As Pamina, Helene Wold can't quite dominate the stage, but her glassy soprano blends pleasingly with Peter Wedd's Tamino, who might have little to do, but does it with glowing ardour. His clean, stylish tenor steals the limelight, and even Laure Meloy's slightly plummy Queen of the Night is outshone.

An evening of mainly vocal pleasures, then. How much more involving might it have been if it were in English throughout?

Performances continue to 28 June; Mon to Sat 7.30pm, Sat matinee, 2.30pm. Booking: 0171-602 7856