Mozart's The Magic Flute
Marlis Petersen (sop) Pamina Anna-Kristiina Kaappola (sop) Queen of Night Daniel Behle (ten) Tamino Daniel Schmutzhard (bar) Papageno Marcos Fink (bass-bar) Sarastro Konstantin Wolff (bass-bar) Speaker; Second Priest, Second Armed Man Kurt Azesberger (ten) Monostatos Sunhae Im (sop) Papagena Magnus Staveland (ten) First Armed Man Joachum Buhrmann (bass-bar) First Priest Inga Kalna (sop) Anna Grevelius, Isabele Druet (mezs) Three Ladies Alois Mühbacher, Christoph Schlögl, Philipp Pötzlberger (trebs) Three Boys RIAS Chamber Choir; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC90 2068/70 (167' · DDD · S/T/t/N) Buy from Amazon
Jacobs sets out his stall in a long booklet essay. His avowed aim is to create for CD a ‘Hörspiel with music, a play for listening’ from Mozart’s ‘comedy with machines’. Accordingly, we get theatrical effects aplenty, from thunder and torrents to the slow drip of water in subterranean caves and animated birdsong. More crucially, Jacobs restores virtually every word of Schikaneder’s dialogue (hence the need for three CDs). Predictably to anyone who knows Jacobs’s other Mozart recordings, the fortepiano cannot be kept down for long. Keyboard chuckles and flourishes punctuate the opening scene with the Three Ladies. So when Papageno checks Pamina’s identity on the basis of her portrait, the fortepiano duly paraphrases the opening of Tamino’s Portrait aria.
Some may find all this meretricious, gimmicky. With the odd proviso, it works brilliantly, enlivening reams of dialogue that, on disc, can all too easily sound tedious to Anglophone (and even to German) listeners. It helps, of course, that the mainly German-speaking cast delivers the dialogue naturally, with wit (the Three Ladies are outstanding), spirit and, in the temple scenes, a welcome lack of orotundity.
As ever, Jacobs favours lively speeds, light articulation and pungent, colourful textures. Horns and trumpets bray incontinently in the Queen of Night’s ‘revenge’ aria, while the superb Berlin wind-players take the fabulous opportunities Mozart offers them with flair and eloquence. He shows a sure control of the ebb and flow of tension in the two long act finales. True to form, though, there are controversial tempo choices.
As to Jacobs’s cast, more than any version it reminds one that Mozart’s own singers were youthful – Anna Gottlieb, the Pamina, just 17, and even Franz Gerl, the Sarastro, only 26. Those for whom a ripe profundo Sarastro, in the mould of Kurt Moll or René Pape, is a sine qua non will doubtless be disappointed by Jacobs’s choice. But the conductor is evidently concerned to make Sarastro less venerably pontifical, more warmly human than usual; and Marcos Fink’s sympathetic, cleanly produced bass-baritone (though with ample resonance on the low notes) fits his conception well. As his antipode, Finnish soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaappola is a formidably venomous, full-toned Queen of Night, the diamantine coloratura integrated into the main body of the voice.
Daniel Behle makes a highly appealing Tamino. Daniel Schmutzhard, with a pleasing lyric baritone, plays a properly ingenuous Papageno. Similarly, Kurt Azesberger is a vivid, uncaricatured Monostatos, overseeing a band of very Viennese slaves. The Ladies sing and blend as well as they act, while the trio of boys is less hooty and better tuned than most. The loveliest performance comes from Marlis Petersen’s Pamina, singing with even, pellucid tone, phrasing gracefully and embodying the character’s gradual transformation from girlish innocence, through suffering to radiant womanhood.
Jacobs, predictably, can both illuminate and infuriate. But this new recording finds a place at the top of the pile for its bubbling, crackling theatricality and an eager, yet unforced, sense of fun that never short-changes the opera’s central message of human enlightenment.
Rosa Mannion (sop) Pamina Natalie Dessay (sop) Queen of Night Hans-Peter Blochwitz (ten) Tamino Anton Scharinger (bass) Papageno Reinhard Hagen (bass) Sarastro Willard White (bass) Speaker Steven Cole (ten) Monostatos Linda Kitchen (sop) Papagena Les Arts Florissants / William Christie
Erato 2564 67742-6 (150' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
With a background primarily in the French Baroque, William Christie comes to Die Zauberflöte from an angle quite unlike anyone else’s; yet this is as idiomatic and as deeply Mozartian a reading as any. In the booklet-note Christie remarks on the unforced singing that’s one of his objectives, much more manageable with the gentler sound of period instruments. All this is borne out by the performance itself, which falls sweetly and lovingly on the ear.
Overall the performance is quick and light-textured – and often quite dramatic. Some may find Christie less responsive than many more traditional interpreters to the quicksilver changes in mood, yet this is a part of his essentially broad and gentle view of Die Zauberflöte. His cast has few famous names, though there’s Hans-Peter Blochwitz, probably the finest Tamino around at the time. As Pamina, Rosa Mannion has much charm and a hint of girlish vivacity, but blossoms into maturity and passion in ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, whose final phrases, as the wind instruments fall away, leaving her alone and desolate, are very moving. Natalie Dessay’s Queen of Night is forthright, clean and well tuned, with ample weight and tonal glitter.
The orchestral playing from Les Arts Florissants is polished, and the translucent sound is a joy. In short, Christie offers a very satisfying, acutely musical view of the work.
Dorothea Röschmann (sop) Pamina Erika Miklósa (sop) Queen of Night Christoph Strehl (ten) Tamino Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-bar) Papageno René Pape (bass) Sarastro George Zeppenfeld (bass) Speaker Kurt Azesberger (ten) Monostatos Julia Kleiter (sop) Papagena Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
DG 477 5789GH2 (149' · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2005. Buy from Amazon
Abbado undertook the opera for the first time in performances in Italy in 2005, directed by his son (the production was seen at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival). On this occasion, he conducts a direct, keenly articulated, inspiriting account of the score, obviously aware of what has been achieved in recent times by the authenticists, yet when he reaches the work at its most Masonic – the Act 2 trio and the scene with the Armed Men, Tamino and Pamina – Abbado, directing his beloved Mahler Chamber Orchestra, gives the music its true and wondrous import. The playing throughout is alert and scrupulously articulated.
Casts varied between performances; here Abbado assembled one predominantly chosen from a youngish generation of German-speaking singers, each of whom approaches his or her role with fresh sound and interprets it in impeccably Mozartian style. The Tamino and Pamina are well nigh faultless. Tamino has been taken by many outstanding tenors on disc but Christoph Strehl sings with a Wunderlich-like strength and beauty, and rather more light and shade than his famous predecessor brought to the role. His is a wonderfully virile, vital reading that gives pleasure to the ear, as much in ensemble as in aria. He is partnered by Dorothea Röschmann, who had already appeared as Pamina at Covent Garden and in many other houses. Her full-throated, positive singing, finely shaped, cleanly articulated, is a true match for Strehl’s.
Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a properly lively and amusing Papageno, and delivers the role in a richer bass-baritone than many interpreters provide. He doesn’t attempt a Viennese accent in the dialogue (a fairly full version), but brings plenty of simple humour to the part. The high and low roles are well catered for. The Hungarian coloratura Erika Miklósa has made a speciality of the Queen of Night and shows just why in a technically secure and fiery account of her two arias. René Pape sings Sarastro: now at the peak of his career, he conveys all the role’s gravity and dignity in a gloriously sung performance. Kurt Azesberger is a suitably nasty Monostatos.
Abbado allows a few neatly executed decorations. The extensive dialogue, spoken in a manner suitable for the theatre, sometimes sounds over-emphatic in the home, with the Papagena as an old woman the worst culprit. The recording is reasonably well balanced. As a whole the performance conveys a welcome immediacy and spontaneity, and the daring of Abbado’s way with the score is very alluring.
Rebecca Evans (sop) Pamina Elizabeth Vidal (sop) Queen of Night Barry Banks (ten) Tamino Simon Keenlyside (bar) Papageno John Tomlinson (bass) Sarastro Christopher Purves (bass) Speaker John Graham-Hall (ten) Monostatos Lesley Garrett (sop) Papagena Majella Cullagh, Sarah Fox (sops) Diana Montague (mez) Three Ladies Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras
Chandos Opera in English CHAN3121 (137' · DDD · S/T/N) Buy from Amazon
No work makes better sense in the vernacular than Mozart’s concluding masterpiece. The composer and, assuredly, Schikaneder would have approved of giving the work in the language of the listeners, and when you have to hand such a witty, well-worded translation as that of Jeremy Sams, it makes even better sense. Sir Charles Mackerras has always been an advocate of opera in English when the circumstances are right.
As ever, he proves himself a loving and perceptive Mozartian. Throughout he wonderfully contrasts the warmth and sensuousness of the music for the good characters with the fire and fury of the baddies, and he persuades the LPO to play with a lightness and promptness that’s wholly enchanting, quite the equal of most bands on the other available versions.
In no way is his interpretation here inferior to his German one on Telarc; indeed, in the central roles of Tamino and Pamina the casting for Chandos is an improvement, and Keenlyside is fully the equal of Thomas Allen on the Telarc set. Keenlyside’s loveable, slightly sad, very human and perfectly sung Papageno is at the centre of things. Rebecca Evans’s voice has taken on a new richness without losing any of its focus or delicacy of utterance. Everything she does has sincerity and poise, although her diction might, with advantage, be clearer.
The recording is fine apart from an over-use of thunder and lightning as sound effects. Anyone wanting the work in English needn’t hesitate to acquire this set.
Ulrike Sonntag (sop) Pamina Andrea Frei (sop) Queen of Night Deon van der Walt (ten) Tamino Thomas Mohr (bar) Papageno Cornelius Hauptmann (bass) Sarastro Sebastian Holecek (bass-bar) Speaker Kevin Connors (ten) Monostatos Patricia Rozario (sop) Papagena Elizabeth Whitehouse (sop) Helene Schneiderman, Renée Morloc (mezs) Three Ladies Ludwigsburg Festival Choir and Orchestra / Wolfgang Gönnenwein
Stage director Axel Manthey
Video director Ruth Kärch
ArtHaus Musik DVD 100 188 (147' · 4:3 · 2:0 · 0 · s) Buy from Amazon
This is one of the most wondrous and simple stagings of Mozart’s elevated Singspiel yet. As its musical attributes are almost as excellent, it’s a DVD experience no one should miss. The action is choreographed in a manner precisely fitting the mood of the moment, serious or comic. Details, such as the dragon, animals responding to Tamino’s flute, the arrival of the three Boys, the evocation of fire and water and several others, often invitations to director’s bêtises, all march here with the thought-through and pleasing-to-look-at concept. How happy that it should be preserved on video, though a pity it’s in 4:3 rather than in widescreen format.
Gönnenwein conducts a reading that fits perfectly with what’s happening on stage in terms of unaffected, rhythmically firm and keenly articulated playing from his fine orchestra. Deon van der Walt’s Tamino is a well-known quantity but he surpasses himself here in strong tone and finely moulded phrasing. He has a fit partner in Ulrike Sonntag’s pure-voiced, moving Pamina. Thomas Mohr, though unflatteringly attired, is a nicely unfussy and gently amusing Papageno. Good and evil, at bottom and top of the range, aren’t so happily done. Hauptmann’s visually impressive Sarastro lacks vocal presence and tends to unsteadiness. Similarly Frei’s formidable figure as the Queen of Night produces an edgy, uncontrolled sound. Ladies and Boys are all admirable.
The video direction is sensitive; the sound, for the most part clear and well balanced, suffers from occasional moments of distortion. But that shouldn’t detract from your enjoyment of this life-enhancing experience.