Childlike wonder is far too good to be left to children. Die Zauberflöte has spawned countless versions for children, but isn't it an obviously good idea to do one for grown-ups that inspires that magical wonderment that makes you feel like you're a child again?

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), Mari Eriksmoen (Pamina) and Three Ladies
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An obviously good idea it may be, but it takes a lot to achieve it. In his production for the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, now on its second outing, Simon McBurney displays brilliant stagecraft and bottomless reserves of imagination: time after time, I was left wide-eyed in wonderment, with a huge smile on my face. But McBurney does much more: this is a director who has read and re-read every word of libretto countless times and is committed to present it coherently, with each moment exuding a sense of rightness, that this opera could not make as much sense any other way. Isn't it obvious to portray the Queen of the Night portrayed as an old, shrunken woman? Her lack of real power and Sarastro's ultimate reconciliation with her make so much more sense in that context. If Tamino is to be given a magic flute, it's surely only natural that it should be a top quality orchestral flute, complete with a magic flautist to play it for him. And how could the walls of Sarastro's temple of wisdom be built of anything other than books?

I was impressed by McBurney's economy of means. The entire set consists of a single platform, suspended by four ropes, one at each corner, which act independently to turn it into any number of shapes: a platform, a wall, a slide, an acoustic backplate. It's augmented by sound effects created live by foley artist Ruth Sullivan in a booth to the right of the stage, and by various video projections, many of them filmed live from chalkboard pictures drawn by Robin Beer. Both are done with immense good humour.

Lilian Farahani (Papagena), Thomas Oliemans (Papageno)
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McBurney's production isn't new to Aix Festival, but its combination with the musical direction of Raphaël Pichon and his Ensemble Pygmalion is new this year. Pichon's playing engenders the same feeling of rightness as McBurney's production, the feeling that Mozart's music should not be played any other way. The timbre of the period instruments was deliciously lovely, Pichon kept everything running with a featherlight touch, instruments perfectly balanced with each other and with the singers, dance rhythms tripping merrily, the brass of the bold masonic chords imposing but never overpowering, tempi upbeat but never rushed.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Mari Eriksmoen made a wonderful princely couple, both looking and sounding beautiful. De Barbeyrac appealed because he sounded so unforced: we had clear diction, a timbre that is light but full of warmth, and good expressivity. Eriksmoen was just as clear, just as unforced and showed how Mozart can tug at the heartstrings: her “Bei Männern”, sung with Thomas Oliemans' engaging Papageno, brought tears to my eyes, and her suicide aria “Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden” was compelling. Kathryn Lewek nailed the Queen of the Night's coloratura as well as anyone I've heard. Vocally, the only disappointment was that the lower register of Dimitry Ivaschenko's Sarastro lacked the heft to be heard through the orchestra.

Bengt-Ola Morgny (Monostatos), Mari Eriksmoen (Pamina)
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The singing cast was surprisingly strong in depth. It's not often that one remarks on the contribution made by the Three Boys or the Two Armed Men, but the three choristers from the Dortmund Singakademie sang with clarity and urgency, playing an important role in driving the narrative, and I particularly enjoyed the strength of Tristan Llŷr Griffiths' First Armed Man.

No opera production is perfect, and there were things I didn't like – some of de Barbeyrac's phrasing for “Dies Bildnis ist getzaubert schön”, Sarastro's incarnation as some form of corporate head honcho, or the very mundane nice office clothing of the chorus. But all round, this was a production of exceptionally high quality. And what I will remember most is my sense of wonder at the theatrical tricks. There was the delight of the snake, naively hand-sketched on a chalkboard and projected onto a scrim, artfully placed to be about to eat Tamino. There was the relish with which the Three Ladies played the opening scene where each is desperate to be left alone with the dreamily handsome Tamino. The entertainment of the fourth wall breakage as Papageno rampages through the front rows of the audience looking for the girl of his dreams, and the pure delight of the “Pa- Pa- Pa- Pa-” duet. There was the cleverness of the sound effects for the trial by fire (what was in that cardboard box?)and, perhaps most of all, the superb stage effect of Tamino and Pamina swimming through the trial by water. A production as magical as the opera's title deserves.

Trial by water: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Tamino), Mari Eriksmoen (Pamina)
© Pascal Victor | artcompress