BY REBECCA BROWN

THE CURRENT Seattle Opera production of The Magic Flute is the most visually stunning and wonderfully goofy thing I've seen in ages.

Though it was Mozart's last opera, The Magic Flute was the first he composed expressly for a popular audience. After losing his royal patronage, Mozart was approached by his old friend Emanuel Schikaneder, who asked him to compose a "sing-spiel," a musical theater piece with spoken dialogue, for the Theater auf der Weiden in Vienna. Schikaneder wanted a show full of spectacle, laughs, and great tunes, and to this end, he cobbled together bits of old fairy tales -- a battle between a queen and a priest, a trial, a quest, a flute with magical powers, and a bunch of weird animals.

At Seattle Opera, British illustrator Gerald Scarfe's set and costume designs correspond perfectly with Schikaneder's original burlesque vision, and rescue The Magic Flute from being a ponderous spiritual/political allegory, recasting the opera as a crowd-pleasing comedy. Scarfe's cartoony sets include a giant snake, a flying genii-toting boat (Maggie Cassidy-Brinn is the third genii in the boat on October 24 and 29), a portable pyramid, and a series of psychedelic skies. But it's the herd of unapologetically cute fantasy animals, among them a gangly, lime-green giraffe-ostrich; a blob-bellied, rainbow-spiked porcupine; and several blue, Elvis-coifed lions that make the packed house laugh and clap so loud you can't hear the music.

It's doubtful that the intermittently silly Mozart would have minded this brief upstaging of his divine music, and none of the singers seem to, either. Some of the newer voices, like Anna Maria Martinez as Pamina and Nathan Gunn as Papageno, both in their company debuts, are especially good.

At its best, the story of The Magic Flute is illogical. At its worst it is horrendously, indefensibly, anti-woman. Seattle Opera and Los Angeles Opera, who co-commissioned this production, were wise to direct our interest away from serious allegorical readings of this work and toward a colorful, comic staging. This production is a must-see not only for avid opera buffs eager to revisit the lively spirit of this classic, but also for newcomers who need a dose of Saturday morning cartoon-style zaniness to help the arias go down.

The Magic Flute continues at the Seattle Center Opera House through Oct 30. Call for showtimes, 389-7676. $30-$103.

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