Less is more on Mozart’s path to enlightenment.

Live review: A Magic Flute
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Peter Brook
Octagon Theatre, Perth Festival
February 25

Peter Brook’s “freely adapted” A Magic Flute is so judiciously stripped back to story and character basics that it reminds me of that trick sometimes seen in old cartoons and slapstick movies: a waiter swiftly pulls a tablecloth out from under an extravagant banquet setting; not one item budges an inch. But the legendary director uses only the crisp, white linen, leaving the decadent feast untouched.

Gone is all the clutter and excess of Mozart’s Masonic symbolism, so often overstated and clichéd elsewhere. He’s really trimmed the fat, reducing the original Singspiel to just 90 minutes and banishing the three ladies who do the Queen of the Night’s bidding along with the three wise boys who guide Tamino on his quest, all deemed peripheral on the path to true enlightenment.

Only seven singers and two compelling actors from the Parisian Théâtre des Bouffes du Nords remain, as does the heart and immediacy of the story. Finally, a Magic Flute that I can relate to on an emotional level, without superfluous distraction.

Hélène Patarot’s costumes are modest – the characters go barefoot throughout – yet casually stylish; Props are even more minimal: the stage is sparsely populated with upright bamboo poles, deployed with economy of means and great effectiveness to depict forests, cage bars and whatever else is required at any given moment. The eponymous magic flute is little more than a stick. Philippe Vialatte’s lighting? Subtly warmer and brighter at moments of revelation, as when Tamino first sees his beloved’s portrait.

The show couldn’t be more refreshingly different from the major Opera Australia production running in Sydney until late March. There is certainly a place for that kind of grandiose spectacle and fantasy in The Magic Flute, but without dozens of gaudy, expensive puppets scrumming around the characters I found Brook’s style of abstracted pantomime even more stimulating, in the imaginative leaps it demands from its audience. Without ritual displays and a huge chorus of priests, the enlightenment the protagonists seek is internalised, even more mysterious and compelling. With Taymor I didn’t know where to look; with Brook I couldn’t take my eyes off the characters.

The arias are in Mozart’s original German but dialogue plays out in a witty new French script by Marie-Hélène Estienne. Far from being disconcerting to switch between the two, it’s a real point of distinction that adds to the sense of play and offbeat charm. The Francophone actors’ diction and tone are impeccable. Papageno (Thomas Dolié) is the most lovable bird-catcher I’ve ever encountered and steals the show with little more than a shrug and a shake of the head, all boyish awkwardness and naiveté. A more enigmatic, Puck-ish guardian figure (a non-singing role played by Abdou Ouologuem) observes the characters and their trials with a wry grin, intervening when necessary. It’s nice to see Papagena (Betsabée Haas), in her octogenarian disguise, slightly more empowered, even lewd.

It’s not just the narrative that’s been pared back – it’s also the music, and again the essence of Mozart’s brilliance shines through. Not even purists will be able to resist Franck Krawczyk’s sensitive piano reduction as Matan Porat accompanies the singers onstage in touchingly intimate style, at times almost like a cabaret performance. Playful twists and surprising details emerge from the very first three chords of the overture, which gently caress the ear rather than opening proceedings with a fanfare. Krawczyk sticks mainly to the high register in delicate tones, imbuing the well-known tunes with great affection and tenderness, as if in a recital of lullabies and lieder. Hearing the music in this way, I found a new sense of openness in the score, reflecting Mozart as part of a continuum from Bach (a fugue played à la Glenn Gould) to Schubert’s heart-on-sleeve Romanticism.

Without the need for a cast that could project powerfully over an orchestra, Brook has selected a mix of singing actors and classically trained performers. Divested of her entourage and ostentatious costumes, the Queen of the Night (Malia Bendi-Merad) is a dignified but not intimidating presence – in fact she’s petite and unimposing, with a small, pert voice to match. Her agile, pitch-perfect delivery of the famous Act 2 aria isn’t the fiery tirade we’ve come to expect; rather a troubled, reluctant plea to her daughter, adding a rare human dimension to the character.

Brook deliberately calls his version “A” Magic Flute, not “The” Magic Flute, but for me it’s the only Magic Flute that really rings true, with all the clarity and joie de vivre of Papageno’s bells.