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The Magic Flute (ENO)

At the London Coliseum Simon McBurney gives Mozart's fantasy opera the Complicite treatment and gets away with it – just

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you love theatre and fancy dipping a toe into opera, start here. Staged the Complicite way you'll find it's not such a rarefied world after all. Fans of director Simon McBurney can certainly skip lightly to St Martin's Lane where the familiar blank canvas of a near-empty stage awaits, ready to be written upon by video artists, writhing actors and the power of an audience's imagination.

Papageno (Roland Wood) and his birds in The Magic Flute (ENO)
It was easy to distinguish the opera specialists from the theatregoers: they're the ones who gasped when McBurney trotted out some of his oldest tricks (he's been projecting images onto tee-shirts since Mnemonic in 1999 and fluttering bits of paper to represent birds since The Street of Crocodiles well before that). But there were new ideas too, notably a ‘trial by water' sequence that recalled the submersion effect in ENO's The Pearl Fishers.

All the cleverness came close to drowning Mozart's Singspiel right from the outset once Gergely Madaras had crashed the applause and launched straight into the Overture. Was that any good? I've no idea. Like most of the audience I was transfixed instead by a video artist, spotlit stage right, as he chalked the production titles on a slate and projected them onto a giant drop gauze.

The ladies who save our hero from death in the opening minute were fatigue-wearing nymphomaniacs who promptly straddled Tamino, debagged him and sniffed his kecks. So far, so good; after all, they do serve the egregious Queen of the Night. Far dirtier was the sound of a melodica that heralded the arrival of Papageno (Roland Wood, decked out like a refugee from Nuts in May). How those A4 sheets flocked around him as he produced notes of supreme ugliness from the cheap plastic.

On opening night relatively few of the singers hit the heights. Most seemed subdued, either by nerves or apprehension; others had more fun. James Creswell was the pick of them, even though by presenting Sarastro as a corporate suit McBurney drained him of nobility and warmth. As Papagena Mary Bevan was as perky as you like, while the umbrella-toting Monostatos of Brian Galliford slimed around the stage like Caliban without the glamour.

Madaras worked the orchestra hard but in the first act he appeared to leave the singers to their own devices, and that led to some slack ensemble. Matters improved after the interval when, for example, Pamina's lament ‘Ach, ich fühl's' showed Devon Guthrie's characterful voice in a more engaging light than her duet with Papageno had done. Ben Johnson is too good an artist to play Tamino as a cipher and I'm sure he'll bring more vigour to the role in time, but it was not his night. Neither was it Cornelia Götz's finest hour; her raddled old Queen of the Night, body as gnarled as her mind, extruded top notes from some very strange places.

The highlights of a mixed yet memorable evening were visual, and in an opera that's not enough. The three wise boys were little old men; Tamino enjoyed some neat interplay with Katie Bedford who ‘dubbed' his flute, and Roland Wood had a blast during an over-indulgent scene involving bottles of wine and a Foley artist. A passable Magic Flute, then, and a production that should serve ENO reasonably well for a few years. It tootles, but only just.