The clue was in the title. Peter Brook’s new Mozart staging at the Barbican was advertised not as The Magic Flute but just A Magic Flute. There was no promise here to be definitive or “do the piece” as you’d expect – only the modest claim to be one possible approach. And modesty is very much his line with music-theatre.
Brook’s relationship with opera has had ups and downs over a long career. In the 1940s he was director of productions at Covent Garden. In 1953 he made a film of The Beggar’s Opera (with an extraordinary cast, most of whom were dubbed, ranging from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Williams). But then he grew disillusioned with the working methods of lyric theatre and walked away from it. And through the past half-century there have only been sporadic returns: a Don Giovanni for Aix-en-Provence, plus the celebrated Carmen and Pelleas he staged on the smallest scale for his own little theatre, the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, before touring worldwide.
Significantly, both those Bouffes productions changed the title of the opera: Carmen became The Tragedy of Carmen, Pelleas became Impressions of Pelleas. And the message then was as now: here’s an idea of the piece that won’t deliver everything you’re used to.