One doesn’t envy any director confronted with the unique challenges of mounting The Magic Flute. It isn’t only that striking a balance between the elements of innocent pantomime and abstruse Freemasonry is so tricky; there’s also the intractable problem of its ramshackle construction and incoherent narrative of a quest for love and enlightenment, full of knots or dead ends, and saddled with a nominal good guy in Sarastro who seems just as unpleasant as the villainous Queen of the Night.
For Opera North’s new staging, James Brining, Artistic Director of Leeds Playhouse, has added an introductory dumb show during the overture. From my partial view of the stage, what I could discern was a little girl settling into bed, while next door her upper-crust parents separate after a screaming row during a dinner party. Left in her father’s care, she falls asleep and what follows is her anxious dream, in which the eponymous flute is a luminous wand and much of the imagery seems to have been inspired by the Gothick world of the Harry Potter movies.
Brining gradually loses interest in the figure of the little girl and focuses instead on presenting Sarastro as the President of a very fishy Opus Dei sort of a cult, in which the women are nuns and the men dog-collared curates, policed by a black-shirt militia and attended by docile children in old-fashioned scouting uniforms. Time’s up, I am glad to say, on Sarastro’s patriarchal expressions of female inferiority, but one is left in more than usual doubt as to whether he is to regarded overall as benign or malign.