Back by popular demand: last season’s Die Zauberflöte, a co-production with English National Opera and the Aix-en-Provence Festival, was such a big box office and critical success that DNO decided to revive it a year later. Director Simon McBurney seems to have taken his cue from Mozart’s librettist and impresario, Emanuel Schikaneder, who premiered the work in an elaborate production that made full use of his theatre’s stage machinery. Engravings of the time show dazzling sets and costumes, featuring lions, a waterfall and an erupting volcano. In spite of being a product of the Enlightenment, stressing the transcendence of base human nature through reason by way of Masonic mysticism, The Magic Flute was conceived first and foremost as entertainment. It exploited two Viennese crazes at the end of the 18th century: Egyptophilia and dramatised fairy tales. Likewise, Mr McBurney’s production makes no apologies about wanting to entertain, but it delights with inventive simplicity, precise stagecraft and wry humour. Revealing the stage magic adds to the amusement. The team members who create live video projections and sound effects are also performers, and a dozen or so actors animate the props with elegant movements, most memorably pages of sheet music representing fluttering birds.

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino) and Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Bogaard
Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino) and Chen Reiss (Pamina)
© Hans van den Bogaard

As imaginative as it is, this is no storybook Zauberflöte. The characters traverse a crepuscular wasteland drained of colour. In the end, it is unsure whether Prince Tamino’s quest for truth and beauty has led him to the right place. The high priest Sarastro, impressively sung by bass Brindley Sherratt, is a guru-like figure exhaling velvet-gloved menace. His Temple of Wisdom is filled with obsequious followers, their drab uniformity belied by the lavish sound of the DNO chorus. Maarten Koningsberger’s vocally authoritative Speaker, looking like a high-level bureaucrat in charge of top secrets, leaves no doubt as to how Sarastro deals with non-conformism. That he makes an example of the thug Monostatos, masterfully sung with evil glee by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, for trying to rape the captive Princess Pamina, offers no reassurance. In a space where the periodic table of elements, symbolising scientific knowledge, melts off the screen, and the murderous Queen of the Night is a broken old woman, the source of wisdom remains ambiguous.

Íride Martínez (Königin der Nacht) and Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Bogaard
Íride Martínez (Königin der Nacht) and Chen Reiss (Pamina)
© Hans van den Bogaard

The characters interact on and around a suspended tilting stage, a modern version of the flying carpet and a potent image of the moral marshland they must negotiate. In this dark uncertainty there is one unequivocal source of light: music. It is the musicians themselves that repeatedly come to Tamino and Papageno’s rescue. By incorporating the orchestra in the staging, literally placing principal flautist Hanspeter Spannring under a richly deserved spotlight, Mr McBurney suggests that art may be the only agent that can refine us into enlightened beings. A director who choreographs projected chalk drawings obviously has great respect for the score, but Mr McBurney’s approach is far from reverential. Glockenspiel and baritone both start "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” haltingly, and Act II opens with Sarastro giving his speech during the March of the Priests. It all works fabulously as theatre, although opera purists might object to the Three Ladies stomping through their music in combat boots.

The cast, as vocally strong as in the original run, showed complete commitment to the staging. The Three Boys sang very well, and inhabited their shrivelled old-men bodies with aplomb. As the sexually aggressive Three Ladies, Judith van Wanroij, Silvia de la Muela and Julia Faylenbogen held their own vocally, despite having to go over Army Basic Training while singing. Maximilian Schmitt, reassuming the role of Tamino, tempered power with sweetness, although his fine tenor occasionally turned nasal at the top of the staff. As the bird-catcher Papageno, Thomas Oliemans was simply outstanding. The physical demands of the role never interfered with his warm, evenly produced baritone. His knotted mass of frustration was eventually untangled by the charmingly girlish Papagena of Regula Mühlemann. In both arias for the Queen of the Night, Íride Martínez struck the stratospheric notes on pitch, but the rest of her voice lacked dramatic impact for the character’s enraged vengefulness.

Regula Mühlemann (Papagena) and Thomas Oliemans (Papageno) © Hans van den Bogaard
Regula Mühlemann (Papagena) and Thomas Oliemans (Papageno)
© Hans van den Bogaard

Besides Judith van Wanroij as the First Lady and Regula Mühlemann as Papagena, soprano Chen Reiss was the third new cast member this time round. She was a totally captivating, sweet-toned Pamina. Unfortunately, a miscommunication about tempo marred her desperation aria, “Ach, ich fühl's”, but the rest of her performance covered her in glory. She and Mr Oliemans were Mozartian perfection in their duet "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen". Marc Albrecht conducted with a swift pulse and drew svelte musicality from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, which performed with effortless dexterity and great vivacity. Protracted, enthusiastic applause confirmed that this short-term revival was a splendid idea.