Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is wonderfully creaky, and so is the Washington Opera's current production of the work at the Kennedy Center. The Opera has adopted the Houston Grand Opera production, featuring the inspired scenery and costumes of the incomparable Maurice Sendak, who is so good even children believe in him. He has created magic out of gauze, and it makes for magnificent staging even when, as happened a number of times opening night, the scrims hang up or the Montgolfier hot-air balloon that occasionally wafts characters on or off stage doesn't go when or where it's supposed to. Mozart's last work is almost as hard on the audience as it is on the cast, because it's a mixture of solemnity and slapstick that often leaves one wondering whether to laugh or cry. It's all Mozart's fault, because he couldn't make up his mind either: the thing was written for the popular theater but is heavily larded with a Masonic message, with the result that the plot is even sillier than most operas'. The English version was chosen for this production, which probably was a mistake. When you can understand what is being said and sung -- which was more than half the time on opening night -- it tends to grate. The message, more or less, is that women are weak/evil creatures who will lead men astray unless closely supervised under the tenets of the brotherhood of Masonry. It probably went over better in 1791; one woman in the audience kept muttering inelegant phrases in French. But the funny parts still are funny two centuries later, especially when performed by such a wight as William Parker, playing Papageno the featherheaded birdcatcher, and such a wench as Patricia Ernest in the part of the pseudoportly Papagena. They are sprightly and stagewise and sing like, well, birds. Alan Kays as Prince Tamino and Karen Hunt as Pamina also delivered their nonsense beautifully, but elsewhere the voices tended to thin out. Sally Wolf produced insufficient power and menace as the Queen of the Night, and Richard Cross lacked boom in his bombast as Sarastro. If he had lived long enough, Mozart might have reconsidered and recast the whole thing as farce, which would have given us evenings of unending, rather than uneven, delight.

THE MAGIC FLUTE -- At the Kennedy Center November 21, 23, 27 and 29.