Die Zauberflöte is probably the greatest singspiel ever composed (only Mozart's own Die Entführung aus dem Serail can compete for beauty), but it is rather difficult to stage because of its highly complicated story and abstruse and rather ambiguous masonic symbolism. But the music sweeps all before it with its extraordinary beauty, quality and variety.

In his Royal Academy Opera production, Stephen Barlow chooses to update the staging to the 1980s, with Sarastro as the charismatic head of a cultish organisation which is a mixture of Mormonism, Scientology and, at the end, a mass wedding of Moonies. He plays the piece for laughs which mostly works very well: it is genuinely very funny and makes light of the more ludicrous plot elements. The Queen of the Night becomes a power-suited nightclub owner hysterical with rage about her daughter's kidnap. Her three ladies become kick-ass Charlie's Angels, and the three children are attired as mini bouncers. Papageno sports a mullet, "catches birds" by photographing them coming out of clubs and plays a portable Moog synthesizer; Tamino the prince is from Princeton university. It's a joyous evening, the directing delineates the plot very effectively, doesn't detract from the music, and makes dramatic sense – though the spiritual message of the end is somewhat diminished by the fact that all have been inducted into a brainwashing cult. The sets by Yannis Thavoris are visually strong, effective and uncluttered.

Choosing to stage it in the original German was brave and wise – this spoken German text requires an even better understanding of pronunciation, colour and meter than singing in German generally does, so I'm sure it has paid dividends to all. Pronunciation was generally very good: some virtually flawless (Aoife Miskelly), and none were less than adequate.

True to received opinion about when male and female voices mature, the girls were all more developed vocally than the boys. Ruth Jenkins made a sensational Queen of the Night, fully up to the extraordinary demands of the role's coloratura, with a dramatic power and clarion intensity in the sound that gave the voice a thrilling edge. Strangely, perhaps, the vibrato is more focused and beautiful in the middle voice than the upper voice, but her accuracy and facility are quite extraordinary and I couldn't hear any aspirates. She's sensational.

The role of Pamina is in some ways just as challenging vocally: not for its agility, but for its apparently endless phrases, always requiring the most limpid, liquid legato imaginable, even whilst negotiating its awkward registral shifts. In this role Mozart composes an idealised picture of femininity that almost trips into parody. Aoife Miskelly was not quite as finished a product as Jenkins, but the potential is huge, and what we did hear was gorgeous. The timbre is absolutely ideal for the role, shining, effortlessly sweet, with a coruscating vibrato that gets more beautiful as it ascends above the stave. Felicity Lott and Barbara Bonney were put in mind, though there is a tightness that crops up occasionally that will need to be excised if she is to ascend to their level. Interpretively she did a lot of nice things too, colouring the voice effectively, managing her phrases very well, and using the language beautifully. Another one to watch.

Rupert Charlesworth did well as Tamino, initially sounding rather tense, but relaxing significantly as the evening progressed, and he ended up producing some very nice sounds. Johnny Herford as his comic foil in the role of Papageno was also good, with nice attention to the text and excellent comic timing. Frederick Long could manage the extraordinary low tessitura of Sarastro just fine, and sang beautifully in his second act aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen", but at this age his voice obviously lacks the richness and blade to make the full impact in this part. Of the men, most impressive vocally was Adam Marsden in the small role of the Speaker, who has a richly coloured, beautiful bass-baritone voice.

The other small roles were mostly well taken too – especially impressive were the three women played by Sara Lian Owen, Rachel Kelly and Fiona Mackay respectively, clearly relishing their roles vocally and acting wise.

Conductor Jane Glover proved to be a sensitive accompanist in the pit, giving the singers all the support and flexibility they needed. The orchestra didn't exactly sound "historically informed" with regards to texture or timbre, but at least the playing was buoyant and tasteful. But why not allow this to be a learning opportunity for the instrumentalists too and allow them to use gut strings, classical bows, and period wind instruments?

This production is double cast – this group of singers will appear again on Friday 16th March.

Royal Academy: Die Zauberflöte, at RAM Sir Jack Lyons TheatreCapriccio reviews Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Academy of Music's Sir Jack Lyons Theatre.4