Mozart's Magic Flute is so well-known and so well-loved that a director must tread a tricky path. If the production is too conventional, he is accused of being boring and hackneyed; if it's too full of clever inventive ideas, he is accused of betraying the original. Fortunately, the director has one overriding thing going for him: Mozart's music. The opera is a string of knock-your-socks-off numbers: half a dozen of them regularly make it into "opera's greatest hits" collections, and there's another half-dozen that probably would if they weren't eclipsed by the first six. Get the music right, and the rest will follow.

Laurent Compagnon, Raphaela Papadakis as Pamina
Laurent Compagnon, Raphaela Papadakis as Pamina

Hampstead Garden Opera certainly got the music right, especially with the female cast members. We got off to an amazing start with the Three Ladies' introduction as they fight over Tamino: the voices blended beautifully, and there was such power that they drowned out a twelve piece orchestra - quite a feat in the tiny space of the Gatehouse (which seats about 180). The star turn of the evening was Raphaela Papadakis as Pamina, with a voice that was strong, rich and completely smooth through every part of the register, and Viki Hart delivered an immaculate set of coloratura fireworks as the Queen of the Night. Papadakis is just 22, and tipped by the HGO people as a star of the future.

The male voices weren't quite up to the same standard, but more than adequate: as Papageno, Samuel Queen's Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen and his Bei Männern with Tamina left everyone in the house wishing fervently that he would find his match. As Sarastro, Christopher Borritt had a voice that was full and warm through most of his range if a bit thin on the lowest notes. William Balkwill's Tamino was at his best in his initiation rites with Sarastro, although his acting showed considerable overuse of what the late Joan Sutherland described as her "GPE" (for "General Pained Expression"). By the way, I've used the German aria names for reference: the performance was in an English translation by Stephen Fry that was a real cut above the average - modern, funny and sometimes poetic without being too clever for its own good.

The Dionysus ensemble delivered the music with verve, pace and fun, if perhaps lacking in accuracy, with more than a few slips and intonation whoopsies. In the context of a tiny pub production, I'm inclined to overlook the flaws, which didn't overly dent my enjoyment.

As for the production: James Hurley kept the action completely true to the original while wrapping it in some nice visual conceits. There's an overriding idea of the whole thing being a bedtime story read to their children (the "three boys" of the original turn into "three girls" for this production) by Tamino and Pamina, complete with dolls houses and a giant toy box (from which Papageno emerges in the first act). There were some great lighting tricks with torches, and an idea of the main characters being controlled by voodoo dolls, which was interesting but which I thought got in the way of the music at times. The acting was a bit ham, but the audience clearly enjoyed it and laughed at the jokes. The costumes were not HGO's finest: Papageno and Papagena's giant bird-emblazoned romper suits were the only ones that I really liked, and the Queen of the Night seemed to be wandering round in a nightie in the first act (maybe the pun was intended). HGO commendably uses young singers for all the main roles, but no effort was made to create the illusion of an age gap between Sarastro and the Queen and the younger characters: the Queen and Pamina looked more like two sisters than like a mother and daughter.

Overall, the production hung together very well, doing a good job of highlighting Mozart's more mystical side with its masonic imagery and contrasts between light and dark. And with such gorgeous music performed so well, it put a big smile on the audience's faces, including many seasoned operagoers who will have seen Die Zauberflöte in more august surroundings.