Two years ago he was acclaimed for his staging of A Dog's Heart by Alexander Raskatov, now he is lavishly believed for his production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. It premiered last week at The Netherlands Opera and last night too, the sold-out audience responded enthusiastically. Yet the high expectations were not quite met.
Inventive and creative McBurney certainly is. Just how he makes the orchestra part of the action is genius: the musicians are not in the pit but on the auditorium floor, and every time Tamino (the German tenor Maximilian Schmitt) plays his magic flute, he ostentatiously hands it to Hanspeter Spannring, the flautist of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Papageno (baritone Thomas Oliemans) has his glockenspiel played over and over again by Jan-Paul Grijpink - until he plays a nice tune on it himself at the end.
It is precisely by emphasising the artificial that McBurney makes the action believable. He also places two sound and visual artists on stage. During the overture, the man on the left draws the text - projected life-size Die Zauberflöt, in the rhythm of the music - after a short 'hiccup' follows the missing e. He announces the rise of the three boys with wobbly paper dolls and creates an impenetrable wall of books as Tamino seeks to enter Sarastro's realm.
From a kind of phone box on the right, his colleague pours over us overwhelming sounds of thunder, waterfalls and birdsong, sometimes accompanied by equally impressive video images. These sophisticated techniques contrast beautifully with sometimes childishly simple images. For instance, the extras from McBurney's own ensemble Complicite 'fly' around Papageno, flapping sheets of paper; when he contemplates suicide, someone helpfully holds up a noose.
Nothing is what it seems, McBurney constantly exclaims to us, which suits the music well. Mozart regales us many times with a Trugschluss - you think you are going to a final chord, but end up on a different chord, after which the music flows on lustily. This is performed with verve by conductor Marc Albrecht and his musicians. The sound is mostly transparent and details are nicely highlighted, but the punishing tempi and sudden accents sometimes come at the expense of pungency; the singers regularly seek to connect with the orchestra. The Netherlands Opera chorus, however, stands tall and proud.
Theatre, and opera in particular, appeals to our willing suspension of disbelief, but McBurney sometimes puts this to the test. When Tamino is besieged by the court ladies of the Queen of the Night, he lies on his back in a ludicrous white hansop, his prongy belly propped up. As the ladies fondle this mountain of flesh, they swoon over a 'holder Jüngling, sanft und schön', which inadvertently provokes laughter.
Maximilian Schmitt, despite his beautiful, warm tenor, does not really manage to animate the role of Tamino, and German soprano Christina Landshamer, as Pamina, only comes into her own in the second act. The voice of Costa Rican Iride Martinez (Königin der Nacht) is not very powerful and her top notes in the colouratura aria 'Der Hölle Rache' sound a bit shrill. Baritone Maarten Koningsberger is sovereign as the vile Speaker and British bass Brindley Sheratt puts down an imposing Sarastro. Hilarious is the moment when he orates - amplified by a microphone - that we are 'in crisis'.
The true star of the evening is Thomas Oliemans, who, lugging a kitchen ladder, gives shape to both the tragedy and drollness of Papageno. He is actually the only flesh-and-blood human being, a born theatre animal. With minute gestures and facial expressions, he evokes a range of emotions, aided by his agile, colourful baritone. Dolcomic is his solo with two leeks on a bottle harmonica.
That the other singers come off less well is also due to the thankless libretto. After all, what is it really about? Is it a simple love story, in which Papageno finds his Papagena and Tamino his Pamina, or is it about becoming a better and wiser human being, as the final text 'Weisheit, Schönheit' suggests? McBurney's staging, while enchantingly beautiful, leaves these questions unanswered.