I've commented before about Die Zauberflöte that if you get the music right, the rest will follow. In the first night of the Royal Opera's latest revival of David MacVicar's 2003 production, Sir Colin Davis definitely got the music right. We were distracted at the start of the overture by Tamino entering through a doorway in the curtain and by mysterious people high in the audience holding globe-shaped lights. But these disappeared after the first few bars, leaving us to listen to the music, at which point I soon realised that we were in for a real orchestral treat.

Jessica Pratt as the Queen of the Night lays down the law to Kate Royal as Pamina: © February 2011 Mike Hoban / The Royal Opera
Jessica Pratt as the Queen of the Night lays down the law to Kate Royal as Pamina:
© February 2011 Mike Hoban / The Royal Opera

The playing was tighter than tight and the music came across with real verve. The balance between instruments provided a beautiful blended sound, which was kept up for the whole evening. And when an opera is as familiar as Die Zauberflöte, it's wonderful to get something new out of the music: I particularly enjoyed the Act II scene with the two armed men in the temple, which I've never really noticed before.

As you would expect at the Royal Opera, there was a strong cast of singers, of whom the undoubted star was Kate Royal as Pamina. She has been labelled an up and coming soprano for some while, but on the evidence of last night, she is now absolutely the finished article. Set piece arias were delivered with authority: her phrasing was elegant, her voice had beguiling warmth and covered the whole range, and you were in no doubt whatsoever that the high notes are going to be nailed in the middle. It was a fine performance.

None of the other singers blew me away in quite the same way, but the performances were of uniformly high quality among all of the very large cast. Die Zauberflöte has better music for a larger number of minor characters than any other opera I can think of, and it tells you something when you have a bass of the pedigree of Matthew Best singing what's very much a minor role (der Sprecher, the Speaker of the Temple). Franz-Josef Selig was suitably stentorian as the high priest Sarastro, Jessica Pratt delivered the Queen of the Night's staccato high notes flawlessly, and Christopher Maltman and Peter Hoare delivered fine comedy as Papageno and Monostatos, with Maltman and Royal giving us a beautifully lyrical Bei Männern. Personally, I would have preferred Joseph Kaiser's Tamino to have been a little more impetuous and less musically smooth, but that's a matter of taste.

The production works well enough: we get some gorgeous tableaux of star-studded night sky, brilliant sunrise and masonic temples with enlightenment-friendly astronomical instruments. The costume designers had most fun with the Queen of the Night in costume and hairstyle reminiscent of the Queen in a pack of cards, with the Three Ladies as clones of their mistress. We also get a larger than life serpent swirling in the mist, handled by a large team of puppeteers, which is dynamic and effective, and some seriously gymnastic (and comically inept) bird-catching from Papageno. However, many of the scenes were a little static - the acting didn't always convince.

But in reality, I wasn't thinking too much about what was happening on stage: my senses were filled with Mozart's wonderful music sounding the way it should and sung beautifully. And that makes this production well worth going to.