Before the beginning of this new version of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, Complicite and English National Opera, one may wonder, looking at the stage, why it was recently hailed as the company's most technically advanced creation to date: an austere, no-frills set consisting of a single suspended rectangular slab and a raised orchestra pit both reflect this production's refreshing tendency towards demystification and directness. Then, of course, the music begins, along with a tour de force of technical wizardry whereby we move seamlessly from the decidedly cinematic opening credits of the overture to the overwhelming layering of sound and projections which opens the first scene.

At stage right, a large glass box allows the audience to witness a sound-effects artist at work, whilst opposite him a technician utilises a pleasing mixture of cutting-edge and rudimentary methods to create a series of beguiling projections in real time, with books and a blackboard creating much of the scenery. The blowing of smoke across a projected chalk drawing of a moon to give the impression of clouds is just one of many small but beautifully thought-out details. There are many stunning set pieces, but two in particular deserve mention: more clever projection-work allowed flautist Katie Bedford to bring to life a selection of Muybridge animal motion studies, whilst the Trials of Fire and Water – almost always a disappointment in other productions – were quite breathtaking here. That said, McBurney also often wisely left the music to speak for itself, the Act I finale and Pamina's Act II aria being cases in point.

Neither Pamina (Devon Guthrie) nor the Queen of Night (Cornelia Götz) had ample stage presence and dramatic conviction to make their lengthy confrontational dialogue anything other than embarrassing. McBurney's bold re-imagining of the latter as a sickly woman mostly confined to a wheelchair – whilst adding an extra dose of vulnerability to the opening of her Act I aria – elsewhere simply didn't convince, particularly as an underpowered Götz made heavy work of her challenging coloratura. Another major change, by which the Three Boys became "Three Spirits", intergrated well into McBurney's enthralling overview naturally enough, though there were instants – particularly in their encounter with a suicidal Pamina – where the innocence and vulnerability of the original children was missed.

Ben Johnson's Tamino was lyrical and warm but rarely dug deep emotionally. If the chemistry between him and Guthrie was mostly lukewarm, their reunion, at least, was poignant and moving. Dramatically speaking, Brian Galliford's villainous and ghoulish Monostatos was ideal, though vocally he struggled when it came to the frenetic patter of his prurient Act II aria. In an uncertain ENO debut, conductor Gergely Madaras drew frustratingly uneven results from his players, occasionally lithe and energetic but mostly lacking drive, clarity and focus.

By far the most engaging performance came from baritone Roland Wood as the simple-minded birdcatcher. Clad in a grotty hi-vis jacket, his shirt tails caught in his fly and possessing a gruff and awkward manner, this Papageno, for once, is one whose status as a singleton is more than believable. His melodica, rather than the usual pipes, is a nice twist, whilst the decision to let him wreak havoc later in the show – writing on the projected chalkboard, terrorising the sound-effects technician – is inspired. His extended comedic monologues are a triumph, particularly when aided by sound effects as he struggles to keep his vow of silence. The role should not only be comic, though, and McBurney's handling of the attempted suicide scene was fussy and lacked gravitas, the Three Boys' premature arrival on stage causing practically all the tension to dissipate.

Despite being musically underwhelming and downplaying the work's darker elements, McBurney's Magic Flute is worth seeing for the sheer brilliance of its stagecraft alone. Ingenious but never pretentious and containing moments of spectacular beauty, much about this warm and generous production is simply glorious. Hopefully its emotional insights will mature and deepen as it is restaged over the coming years.

ENO: The Magic Flute, at London ColiseumSam Wigglesworth reviews Simon McBurney's The Magic Flute at English National Opera.3