Mozart Die Zauberflöte
Those who have been collecting Gardiner’s series of the six mainstream Mozart operas will not hesitate to complete their set with his version of Die Zauberflote, the culmination of a well-organized project. In it they will rediscover all the famed Gardiner attributes: disciplined, ordered playing and singing, buoyant rhythms, tellingly balanced sonorities, attention to every detail of colour and counterpoint allowing for pellucid textures, especially important in this work. These, allied to the conviction with which everything is executed, makes this reading a formidable competitor. But, whereas the two opera seria and the Da Ponte works respond unerringly and naturally to Gardiner’s almost dispassionate view of Mozart, this work – like Entfuhrung the other
In the faster movements, notably the Overture, Tamino’s rescue aria, the Act 2 Quintet and the little chorus after the Trials (too jaunty by half), crispness tends to shade into a strait-jacket: the music can just be articulated at Gardiner’s tempos, but the precision is achieved at the expense of natural flow. To be sure, he is disposed to relax and let Mozart have his head in such sublime moments as the “Bei Mannern” duet and the reunion of Pamina and Tamino, but as a whole the impression left is of efficiency bought at the expense of natural eloquence.
Besides, Gardiner has to stand comparison with two other period-instrument versions of recent vintage, the Christie and Oestman, heaped with praise respectively by SS and myself (I share SS’s enthusiasm for the Christie set). Both these interpretations, though taken, by and large, as briskly as Gardiner’s, evince a more relaxed, affectionate approach to the score, with Oestman a shade more intimate, largely because of the character of the L’Oiseau-Lyre recording. As it happens Gardiner’s is undoubtedly the best recorded of the three, the sound having an enviable bloom. Not only is the Ludwigsburg setting obviously favourable to recording but the familiarity of the artists with their roles is clear in the dialogue (the choice here is very different in all three versions – Gardiner, for instance, omits the whole of the scene for the slaves before Monostatos’s entry). One irritation is the amount of space that has been allowed between speech and numbers.
So far as the cast is concerned, Gardiner scores an outright winner with his Pamina. For all Mannion’s conviction (Christie) and Bonney’s purity of utterance (Oestman), Oelze surpasses them in her wonderfully eager, tender outpouring of sound, and the advantage of being a native-born German-speaker is obvious in both sung and spoken passages. This is a lovely performance, perhaps as beguiling as any on disc. In the aforementioned Act 1 duet, she is joined by the warm, unexaggerated Papageno of Finley. Few Papagenos fail but not many have both such a timbre as that of the Canadian baritone, which is not to say that either Cachemaille, Oestman’s more naturally witty birdcatcher, or Scharinger (Christie), a justly famed Papageno, is outclassed.
Schade is an elegant, well-schooled Tamino who phrases with truly Mozartian grace, but his tenor is one-dimensional in tone and a shade anonymous in feeling and phraseology when set beside Blochwitz (Christie) and Streit (Oestman), both virtually ideal in the part. Sieden is a spitfire Queen of Night, with faultless control in the stratosphere, but revealing vulnerability in the character’s more reflective moments. Sumi Jo (Oestman) does the same things even better. Dessay (Christie), with a heavier tone than her rivals, finds more menace in the part than either while yielding in terms of vocal security.
The main disappointment on the new set is the Sarastro (Gardiner seems unsure in his choice of basses – vide Hauptmann as a poor Osmin on his Entfuhrung, 12/92). Peeters is unsteady and wants the authority the role must have. Hagen (Christie), even more Sigmundsson (Oestman) have these qualities in abundance – compare “O Isis und Osiris” in the three performances and my point is amply made. Roth is a suitably grave Speaker, a definite find. Gardiner sports an experienced and vital Monostatos in Peper and an absolutely delightful Papagena in Backes. Ladies are about average, boys fresh and always in tune.
A couple of textual points. Gardiner adds an appendix to each CD, with alternate versions, notably of Tamino’s Portrait aria, Pamina’s G minor aria, and the quartet before the trials, interesting adjuncts but not essential and surely the reason for the omission of some important dialogue. Christie alone of the three allows a good deal of vocal decoration, all gracefully executed by his principals.
Those who know Gardiner’s ways will find the new set to their liking, the poor Sarastro apart. Those wanting a more naturally paced, loving account of this life-enhancing work will do better, I think, with either Oestman, whose artless yet perceptive reading wears well, or Christie, supremely well crafted yet always heartfelt and as SS so unerringly put it “euphonious to a degree”.'