Longborough’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute calls strongly on the opera’s fairytale plot. The action opens in a child’s bedroom, where a little boy lies on his small iron bedstead reading a book, kicking his heels, occasionally getting up to look out of his enormous bedroom window through a telescope. Through the windowpanes, we can see a giant 18th-century sketch of a sophisticated formal garden, which is eventually revealed in full as the landscape and gardens of Sarastro’s temple, a cultivated plain in a wider, wilder landscape: like a view of Versailles with a pyramid drawn over the top, it offers a visual allegory of the Enlightenment, with Man taming Nature by virtue of Reason. Like Glyndebourne’s recent Rinaldo, the ensuing opera seems to take shape as the boy’s daydream, or perhaps the world of his storybook coming to life in his imagination, and at first, he is an extra participant on stage, blowing Papageno’s pipes and assisting Prince Tamino. Later, he reappears as a beneficent spirit serving in Sarastro’s temple; by then, we have virtually left the framing device behind, although a sense of dreamlike surrealism never quite fades from the stage. Magic feels real here, thanks to the skilful use of puppetry throughout the evening, as well as a faithful, traditional approach to the work itself, celebrating Mozart’s aims rather than problematising or probing them too deeply.  

Director Thomas Guthrie has contributed plenty of energy and ideas to his vivid production, but has also maintained the opera’s crucial air of mystery: we, and Tamino, have to find out for ourselves who is evil, and who is good; who is right, and who is wrong; who can be trusted, and in whom we can ourselves safely trust. These questions, the perennial anxieties of fairytale and of childhood itself, propel the plot forward, modulated by Mozart through the ceremonies and symbolism of Masonry. Accordingly, Sarastro’s followers wear aprons, and keep their precious secrets well guarded, while Sarastro exudes humanity and compassion, yet wields extreme control over all around him. Colours are intense, with black, white and crimson key. Tamino and Pamina first appear as white, lifesize puppets, with their singers (Julian Hubbard and Beate Mordal) hooded and cloaked in black beside them: though singers eventually shed their cloaks and take over, it feels supremely appropriate for this particular Prince and Princess to be puppets, pulled as they are in different directions by the warring influences of Male and Female, of Light and Dark, of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, before they finally find happiness in unity and love.

Ruth Paton’s design is tastefully minimalist, with large bare branches held by cloaked puppeteers to represent trees, and the Fire and Water challenges brilliantly imagined with dancing, hand-held lights of red and blue whirling towards the vulnerable puppets. Costumes are generally 18th-century in tone for our main characters, while our dreaming boy in cotton pyjamas seems to come from the early days of the 20th century, using toy biplanes to lead Tamino to rescue Pamina.  

Longborough’s Magic Flute Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Negus, created a warm and delicate sound: like the rest of the company, their professionalism never faltered, despite an unscheduled short break in Act 1 (thanks to a miscreant curtain). Thomas Guthrie then came onto the stage to ask whether we would like to hear the Queen of the Night’s aria again: the audience’s answer was resoundingly yes.

All the singing is strong and confident, even from the three small boys who made a remarkable contribution to the whole as the Spirits (Osian and Inigo Guthrie, and Tristan Lockett-Green). Beate Mordal was a joy as Pamina, giving her bags of innocent determination and girlish idealism amounting to real independence and courage: “Ach, ich fühl's” was wonderfully affecting. Julian Hubbard was a passionate, tender Tamino with undeniable stage presence and a lyrical, expressive tenor. Grant Doyle made the ideal comic, cocky Papageno, his German crisp, clear and expressive, his timing perfect (even down to an irresistible Brexit joke) and his baritone endlessly generous. Jihoon Kim’s Sarastro was always moving in song, his huge bass wonderfully expressive in its central range, though slight tightness tended to obscure his lowest notes. Kim’s spoken moments were not as dramatically successful, but still delivered with heartfelt sincerity.  

Hannah Dahlenburg was a memorable Queen of the Night, her black gown coruscating with dark jewels, resisting any temptation to ham and making her first aria feel emotionally genuine, both times, although occasionally it did feel that Dahlenburg was strategically saving her voice for its more challenging passages, and the second act found her less convincing overall. However, her Three Ladies (from Samantha Clarke, Sioned Gwen Davies and Carolyn Dobbin) were a lesson in vocal beauty and charisma throughout. Sarah Gilford gave Papagena charm and depth, with the briefest of opportunities. Colin Judson’s deeply unappetising, yet compelling chef Monostatos brimmed with near-Alberich levels of nastiness.