Die Zauberflöte

Kate Royal (Pamina), Ana Durlovski (Queen of the Night), Pavol Breslik (Tamino), Michael Nagy (Papageno), Dimitry Ivashchenko (Sarastro), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle

This video is a souvenir of the Berlin Philharmonic’s first staged performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in its new residency in Baden-Baden’s Easter Festival, after decades of association with Salzburg. Robert Carsen’s production has not been well received by reviewers, but it is nonetheless a different and surprisingly effective take on this favorite Singspiel, here shorn of all exotic and spectacular elements, its symbology refined to the most basic archetypes: the world of innocence/passions shown as a forest, the threat of death and the desire of continuity (represented by graves and a dark underground where Pamino and Tamina are put to theirs proofs) as a way to wisdom and responsibility eventually achieved in the same forest, now in blossom. There are no good and bad guys here – Sarastro and the Queen of the Night both share the bad/good cop duties and even Monostatos is forgiven at the end. However, the scene of the Queen of the Night’s attempt of breaching into the Temple seems here more pointless than it usually is.  If there is something above any criticism here is the superlative playing of the Berliners,  providing the ideal blend of richness, flexibility and clarity. The beauty of orchestral sound is so overwhelming that you’ll overlook Simon Rattle’s awkward attempts of intent of leaving his imprint in a star-crowded discography: the rhythmic structure of various numbers is artificially tampered with in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto, other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) are so hectic that one cannot help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. When the conductor is short of whim and let things follow their own course, this performance can be quite persuasive – it is never enough to repeat it – for the paramount quality of its orchestra. When one speaks of the orchestra before the singers, readers tend to believe that the casting is below level. Not really – this performance is quite efficiently cast, but none of these individual performances stand out in the formidable competition offered by the likes of Gundula Janowitz, Edda Moser, Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Kurt Moll. Kate Royal, for instance, is truly rich-toned and expressive, but the tonal quality is a bit grainy and astringent. Pavol Breslik too is one of our day’s most commendable Mozartian tenors. Here he sings in a pleasant, forward and firm voice, facing the heroic passages with panache. However, he and his Pamina are too often too matter of fact, whereas Mozart would expect them to be more poetic and classically poised. You just need to hear Margaret Price and Peter Schreier (both already past their prime) in Colin Davis’s recording to see how elegantly and sensitively they sculpt their way through their parts to see my point. Ana Durlovsky offers an unusually intelligent and musically accurate account of the role of the Queen of the Night and the microphones make her voice a bit more imposing than live in the theatre. Actually, I was able to catch a concert version of this performance in the Philharmonie in Berlin. There, Michael Nagy was in beautiful voice. I cannot say the same about his singing in this DVD. Here his baritone sounds a bit colorless and dull. He is, on the other hand, extremely congenial and one of the less exaggeratedly funny Papagenos I have ever seen. As Sarastro, Dimitry Ivashchenko sings in a deep, rich and dark bass, most impressively in his spacious lower register, yet with very little affection. The minor roles are glamorously cast: Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann as the Three Ladies and an endearingly cameo from José Van Dam, still in very good shape at 73.

Christina Landshamer (Pamina), Íride Martínez (Queen of the Night), Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Thomas Oliemans (Papageno), Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro), Chorus of Dutch National Opera, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Marc Albrecht

The DVD from the Dutch National Opera features a performance with a serious intent of avoiding cuteness without eschewing fun.  Conductor Marc Albrecht understands the dramatic purpose of every note written by Mozart for truly exciting effects. If he knows when he can speed up the proceedings for the right exhilarating impression, he also knows when to relax and let the music speak for itself. Reducing the merit of his conducting to agogics would be oversimplifying – dynamic, accent and tonal variety are all employed to the service of theatre most persuasively here. The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra flirts with period practices and has its occasional rough-edged moments, but the playing is constantly engaged, expressive and meaningful. Although the cast is certainly reliable, the artists in the orchestral pit are the reason why this release makes a difference in the discography. It is a pity, though, that the stage director’s strife for laughs and effect involved some arbitrary musical decisions: actors speaking over musical passages originally clean of dialogue; the Sarastro/Tamino/Pamina heard earlier than what prescribed by the score; tampering with the orchestration in Papageno’s second aria… What for?! Anyway, although Simon McBurney’s production is too self-reverent in its stagecraft and excess of visual information, it is very direct in its symbolism and finds an uniquely satisfying idea of sound effects to accompany dialogues that usually sound dull between musical numbers. Christina Landshamer has everything the role of Pamina requires, even if the tonal quality is a bit anonymous. Do not expect much poise and finish from Íride Martínez’s Queen of the Night, but, if you want panache and intensity, she does a terrific job and keeps up commendably with fast tempi with her high staccato passages. And the acting is top quality. Maximilian Schmitt’s tenor is a bit on the whiny side and he is often blank in what regards interpretation, and yet his singing is uncomplicated and he is at ease with the style. Thomas Oliemans is a congenial, warm-toned Papageno who is fortunately very funny too. It is hardly his fault if he does not achieve the folk-like spontaneity a Hermann Prey could provide: this seems to be an art lost in our days. Brindley Sherratt’s Sarastro has spacious low notes, flexibility and poise, but there is some instability and a glaring quality to his high notes that makes it all less noble than it should. Minor roles are not truly impressive, but in their defense one can argue that they are usually busy with difficult stage action.

Julia Kleiter (Pamina), Mandy Fredrich (Queen of the Night), Bernard Richter (Tamino), Markus Werba (Papageno), Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Concentus Miuscus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach to Die Zauberflöte is a steady rising curve in mannerism and lack of naturalness. While his first studio recording still had some unusual cubistic beauty in its attempt to show all sides of this music, his first recording, made live in the Felsenreitschule is basically distortion. The rhythmic flow is disturbed by all sort of phraseological fuss, such as sudden unwritten pauses, incoherent change of pace, lapses of Strechstimme, rough orchestral sound, poor balance and serious lack of sheer sensuous pleasure in the music making. Julia Kleiter is again Harnoncourt’s Pamina, here marginally less fresh than in Zurich, but richer in tone and more dramatically accomplished. Mandry Fredrich is an intense but heavy-handed Queen of the Night, not truly adept in her runs. Bernard Richter is a stylish and sensitive Tamino, albeit plagued by tight vocal production and a bottled up high register. Markus Werba is another rough-toned yet congenial Papageno at ease in his native Austrian accent. Georg Zeppenfeld is the shining feature of this cast, a Sarastro noble in tone, comfortable with the low tessitura and informed in true Mozartian style. Jens-Daniel Herzog’s production has the cast behaving as if they had some kind of mental disorder and goes for too much slapstick until he decides he has a concept: here both the Queen of the Night and Sarastro and his brotherhood are old generation trying to put younger generation under their influence either by tradition or by education until both Pamina and Tamino decide that Papageno and his simplicity are the way to go. This could have worked if the significant part of it hadn’t been delayed until the last scene.

Genia Kühmeier (Pamina), Albina Shagimuratova (Queen of the Night), Saimir Pirgu (Tamino), Alex Esposito (Papageno), Günther Groissböck (Sarastro), Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Roland Böer

William Kentridge’s camara-obscura production was originally conducted by René Jacobs and his performance edition (e.g., fortepiano accompanying dialogues and during numbers – see below) is here adopted. Although Roland Böer’s conducting is not truly competitive in this discography, it is a less nonsensical sample of the “Jacobs” edition, especially for the contribution of the Orchestra della Scala. Although true polish is not here, it is admirable to see how these musicians tried to produce somewhat “historically informed” sonorities. In any case, its sound is without any doubt superior to that of the Akademie für Alte Musik. Many of the interesting effects explored by Jacobs sound therefore more… effective here. If you cannot part with idiomatic pronunciation, this is probably not your recording. That is, evidently, not the case of the exquisite and touching Pamina of Genia Kühmeier, here even more accomplished than for Muti in Salzburg (see below). Her aria is sung in the traditional slow tempo, and she makes every second worth it. Albina Shagimuratova occasionally smears her runs, but other than this her firm-, round-toned Queen of the Night is really exciting. If Saimir Pirgu’s Tamino has many beautiful moments, the glaringly open-toned patch around the passaggio takes some time to get used to. Alex Esposito’s thick-toned Papageno is heavy-footed in phrasing and overemphatic in funniness. I have seen Günther Groissböck many times in various occasions and I can only believe that he was in very bad shape when he recorded this effortful and wooden Sarastro. Back to the staging, the white projections on black screens, the ugly costumes and the pretentious and far-fetched relation to the colonial issue translate poorly into video, which looks rather like a school pantomime.

Marlis Petersen (Pamina), Anna-Kristiina Kaappola (Queen of the Night), Daniel Behle (Tamino), Daniel Schmutzhard (Papageno), Marcos Fink (Sarastro), RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs

René Jacobs’s recording is guided by the principle that The Magic Flute requires an ideal balance between music and theatre, in the sense that one must not dissociate it from the stage action. Therefore, the dialogue is presented here without cuts and timed with musical precision, not to mention that the orchestra produces many of the sonic effects prescribed in the libretto (roaring lions, thunderbolts, magic spells etc). And then there is the fortepiano continuo. Yes, although Singspiele are not supposed to have dialogues accompanied by continuo, Jacobs goes for the why-not?-approach. Much of what is played here is inspired by Mozart himself and, when this just adds some atmosphere, well, it is quite harmless. When you have actors speaking over music, then it sounds a bit like telenovela. However, the main issue here is having the fortepiano incessantly playing during the written numbers. Since the orchestra has quite raspy strings and brass is not really subtle, it has a quasi-soloist prominence and doesn’t provide any special sense of beauty (or considerable expressive gain) – it basically sounds odd and often really distracting. Then there is the omnipresent abrupt sudden tempo shift. Although some of that seemed to be justified by the libretto, the libretto itself did not inspire the composer himself to write it in the score. It seems that the many cute liberties taken with what Mozart wrote did not annoy most reviewers: unwritten pauses,  misplaced ornaments (does the folksong-like simplicity of Könnte jeder brave Mann call for decoration, for example?), you name it… Does Mozart need all that? One could surely make use of some theatricality, but Jacobs’s approach is so Schwarzkopf-ian in its various and self-conscious mannerisms that all possibility of immediacy and directness is lost.

I have seen this performance in concert version and cannot help realizing that the microphone has been kind to every singer in this cast. Marlis Petersen’s light soprano operates on a very limited tonal palette and very little color in the lower end of her range. She is an intelligent and expressive singer and her clever handling of Jacobs’s genuine andante for Ach, ich fühl’s deserves praise. Anna Kristiina Kaappola is tonally shallow and dangerously close to soubrettish in her lack of weight She handles the specific challenges of the part of the Königin der Nacht (she sings her fioriture on the vowel of the text, for instance) really nimbly – and her in alts are bright and firm – but everything else does not sound very distinguished.  Daniel Behle is a musicianly, elegant Tamino keen on crooning for the microphone and often colorless otherwise. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno is sung in almost pop-like manner, what has the advantage of spontaneity over variety. Marcos Fink has a beautiful voice and sings with affection, but hitting the low notes does not mean that one has the depth of voice required by the part of Sarastro.In the end, it is rather a matter of elegance than of authority. In his sense Konstantin Wolff’s Sprecher offers something more imposing. The three ladies, are extremely spirited, if not always ideally focused.

Julia Kleiter (Pamina), Elena Mosuc (Queen of the Night), Cristoph Strehl (Tamino), Ruben Drole (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s DVDs from Zürich contain the conductor’s second view on Mozart’s magic Singspiel, even if very little magic remains in a performance that lacks forward-movement and abounds in irritating rallentando and accelerando effects in the general context of ponderous tempi. To make things worse, the orchestral playing is made to sound somewhat drab and untidy and the chorus, undernourished and disheveled. Rarely has Mozart’s music sounded so awkward as in this performance. This perverse boycott of the score has been extended to the cast, who is often invited to employ Sprechstimme effects when the pace gets helplessly slow. As an example, the thoroughly lovely Julia Kleiter was convinced to portray Pamina in quite a shrewish manner that robs Ach, ich fühl’s of any possibility of pathos. Of course, the conductor is right to explain in the booklet that this aria is no Romantic tearjerker and that the score’s andante should be respected – but that has nothing to do with draining it of its indisputable touchingness (just listen to Mackerras to see how this should work). Elena Mosuc’s Queen of the Night has finally acquired the necessary dramatic flame, unfortunately at the expense of agility. It seems that Cristoph Strehl was not in his best voice when this video was recorded. Apparently, illness had prevented him from singing at the première – and this might explain the strained, stressed and uncomfortable singing he produces here. This is a singer I have seen live in this role in a far larger house and I know his Tamino is far more presentable than this. Ruben Drole’s rich-toned Papageno is, on the other hand, a true find. Although his voice has its rough patches, his ability to produce mellifluous mezza voce is admirable. He also has a most engaging stage presence and handles his dialogues with naturalness. If I am not mistaken, Laszlo Polgár was supposed to be this production’s Sarastro and Matti Salminen was a last-minute replacement. It is admirable that this veteran singer still keeps his voice in such good shape, but again Mozart has never been his best friend. I have the impression director Martin Kusej was dying to direct a Russian mob movie, but had to content himself with Die Zauberflöte. I really could not make any sense of his hospital basement, plastic chairs, mineworkers, fencers, you name it. It goes straight up to my list of the most detestable productions of Mozart operas ever committed to video.

Genia Kühmeier (Pamina), Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night), Paul Groves (Tamino), Christian Gerhaher (Papageno), René Pape (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

Recorded in the context of the Salzburg 2006 Mozartian 250th Anniversary Festival, the video from the Grosses Festspielhaus features Riccardo Muti in his only official recording of Die Zauberflöte. Considering this conductor’s congeniality with the composer’s Italian operas, one would expect some kind of charmingly fast and articulated Rossinian approach only to be surprised with this overserious and rather deliberate performance. Although the playing from the Vienna Philharmonic is not heavy at all, there is an overall lack of liveliness and profile that makes it all sound like background music. Maybe the large hall acoustics has something to do with the matte sound picture. Pierre Audi’s bright, basic-coloured productions could not be more contrasted with the musical aspects of this performance. Unfortunately, the plethora of overcreative ideas does not always look well, especially when they replace elements required in the libretto by shapeless structures with little added insight. Costumes are inexplicably ugly and unflattering to singers, especially Pamina, made to look frumpy (especially next to a sexy Queen of the Night), and Tamino, whose hairstyle (and hammy acting) makes one think of a porn actor. As a compensation for the high-priced tickets, the audience could concentrate on the excellent cast assembled here. Taking the role of Pamina, Genia Kühmeier proves to be the most recent exponent of the Austrian lyric soprano tradition. Her absolutely pure soprano floats through Mozartian lines with admirable freedom and instrumental quality – and has unexpected reserves of warmth when this is required. Diana Damrau is again a most exciting Queen of the Night, singing her second aria with almost reckless vehemence, not to mention that her acting skills are praiseworthy. As much as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the past, Christian Gerhaher’s whole attitude is too sophisticated for Papageno and he tries too seriously to be funny. What is beyond doubt is this artist’s good taste and intelligence. René Pape sounds a bit more fluent here than he was for Abbado and, although his warm round dark bass is always a pleasure to the ears, I still miss clearer articulation in the little angles in his phrasing. A survivor from Muti’s performances at La Scala 10 years before, Paul Groves seems to know the right style of singing required by Tamino, but his usual lack of spontaneity here verges on awkwardness and his German seriously needs some training.

Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Erika Miklósa (Queen of the Night), Christoph Strehl (Tamino), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Papageno), René Pape (Sarastro), Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

In spite of an acknowledged reputation as a Mozartian, Claudio Abbado apparently took a long time to record Mozart’s best-loved Singspiel. The occasion happened during live performances in Modena. Maybe the hunger of Abbadians for this recording created the high expectations which surrounded the release of these discs and the complacent reviews might be a result of that too. An uninformed listener would find a correct and stylish performance – nothing more than that. When Abbado’s knowledge of Mozartian phrasing and structure concur to optimal effects, such as in the Queen of the Night’s second aria, the results are indeed impressive, but that does not happen as often as it should. To start with, the recorded sound is artificial in bothersome levels. Sometimes one reminds of those old Karajan recordings in which pianissimo meant “silence” and fortissimo meant “deafness”. Also, the slim orchestral sound not closely or warmly recorded does not build the sense of an intimate musical experience. Details are all there, but playing with buttons have more to do with that than natural hall balance. Moreover, the fact that the more delicate orchestral perspective is not allied to really agile tempi gives one the impression that there is something missing to fill in the blanks – listen to Solti’s 1990 recording and you’ll see that the missing element is the effect of a positive orchestral sound. On the other hand, if you want to use your magnifying glass and delve into the filigree of Mozart’s score, just check what either Mackerras or Marriner can do with a chamber orchestra using modern instruments. The cast does not come to great help under these circumstances. The velvety-toned Dorothea Röschmann’s word-pointing has come dangerously close to affectation and her voice is developing into something too luxuriant for someone young as Pamina. Erika Miklósa’s Queen of the Night is efficient and athletic enough to deal with Abbado’s appropriately fast tempi for her arias. As for Cristoph Strehl’s Tamino, although the voice itself is proper to this role, his handling of it is rather awkward, making for some strained and ungainly moments. Compared to him, even the fluttery Uwe Heilmann (for Solti) sounds more varied and pleasant. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a dark-toned, elegant and congenial Papageno, while René Pape is a rich-voiced noble Sarastro, although I would have appreciated more crispy phrasing when his bass has to move a bit faster. With the notable exception of Julia Kleiter’s sweet-sounding Papagena, the other minor roles are rather ungenerously cast. Since these singers are almost all of them native German speakers, dialogues are generally spontaneous and certainly fluent.

Suzie LeBlanc (Pamina), Isolde Siebert (Queen of the Night), Cristoph Genz (Tamino), Stephan Genz (Papageno), Cornelius Hauptmann (Sarastro), La Petite Bande Chorus and Orchestra, Sigiswald Kuijken

Aided by flexible and characterful orchestral playing, Sigiswald Kuijken offers a performance of unusual intelligence. Based on a thorough understanding of the score and the text, Mozart’s music makes extraordinary sense both in its relation to dramatic situations but most of all in what regards phrasing and balance. Orchestra and singers respond to each other in a coherent and organic way, and no cheap effects (such as making everything extremely fast) are necessary. Most unfortunately, the cast does not achieve the same level of accomplishment. Actually, the decision of recording dialogues uncut is here doubly regrettable, for they are so lackadaisically delivered that not only it is an ordeal to listen to them but also they interrupt the atmosphere built by the conductor. In a regular performance of Die Zauberflöte, Suzie LeBlanc would probably sing one of the genii. Considering she sounds like a boy soprano, it is commendable that a voice so limited in color and warmth still suggests some affection. Although Isolde Siebert’s voice too is light for the role of the Queen of the Night, this does not make her particularly nimble or adept in her staccato in alts. Christoph Genz’s Tamino shares the same problems and still has a nasal quality in his middle register and his ventures above the staff are spineless and uningratiating. His whole approach is very mannered and charmless. The Genz family is redeemed by his brother’s Papageno, the best performance in this recording. His singing is spontaneous and his light baritone is easy on the ear. Even in his prime, Cornelius Hauptmann was not a must-hear as Sarastro. Add some rust to that and you can picture what you are going to find here. To make things worse, the recorded sound shows the singers in overresonant acoustics. Since these are small voices not closely recorded, the final impression is of insubstantiality.

Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night), Will Hartmann (Tamino), Simon Keenlyside (Papageno), Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

Unfortunately, Colin Davis’s second recording of Die Zauberflöte reveals that vital elements of his performance were the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the recorded sound by Phillips. The Covent Garden orchestra lacks the clear articulation and the rich sound their Dresdner colleagues excel in and the recording is too favourable for singers, what impairs clarity throughout. Also, tempi tend to drag a bit compared to the former release – and this is particularly bothersome when one already has to deal with a somewhat recessed orchestral sound. David McVicar’s production is overdark and now and then one thinks of limited budget, but his stage direction is according to the reputation of the land of Shakespeare. Also, he has an extraordinarily gifted cast – some of these singers could do straight theatre! Dorothea Röschmann is a highly expressive Pamina, more positive than usual and sung in creamy tone. Some may found that her imaginatively shaded word-pointing is not entirely healthy to legato, though. Diana Damrau leaves a flashing impression as the Queen of the Night. Her vibrant steely sound fits the role as a glove and her high staccato singing is amazingly accurate. She also knows how to highlight the meaning of words and to make coloratura an expressive tool. One thing is certain: nobody on video has mastered the stage aspects of the role as she does. Will Hartman is a controversial Tamino: although his voice is too heroic and uncaressing for the role, he does not sing it as a heroic role, shading his tone sensitively in the lighter moments. Simon Keenlyside projects such artlessness and naïveté in his bright firm tone that he ends on being irresistible. Also – he really is a wonderful actor and has the audience on his hand. Despite some unstable and throaty moments, Franz Josef-Selig is a noble Sarastro, displaying a healthy low register and stylish phrasing. Among the secondary roles, Yvonne Howard’s dark contralto is worthy of mention.

Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Désirée Rancatore (Queen of the Night), Piotr Beczala (Tamino), Detlef Roth (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Iván Fischer

The DVD from the Opéra de Paris features Benno Besson’s everything-at-the-same-time production involving XVIIIthe century-like painted cardboard sceneries and machinery together with pseudo-Asian costumes mixed with suit-and-tie outfits and some incredibly anti-climax for climactic scenes such as the Queen of the Night’s second aria and the final scene. Iván Fischer’s elegant conducting generates transparent, clearly articulated sounds from the house orchestra and, even if tempi could be a bit more animated, the sense of of forward movement is never lost. The young Dorothea Röschmann is a cleanly sung Pamina – she would still develop her interpretation, but the fresher and brighter top register is a reward in itself. Desirée Rancatore is the second Italian Queen of the Night in the discography. She has the right temper for the role, clear coloratura and rhythmical accuracy (even in the fast tempo chosen by the conductor for her second aria), but her high register can be shrill and edgy. Her German deserves some practice and she does look here too young for the role. The also young Piotr Beczala seems more concerned with Mozartian style than he would later be, but he is even less at ease therefore – his intonation is uncertain in Dies Bildnis, his phrasing is a bit clipped and mechanical and his delivery is rather indifferent too. Detlef Roth is a stylish and clear-toned Papageno. His stage performance involves some unfunny comedy gestures and lots of grimacing while singing. Sometimes I had to close my eyes to enjoy his singing, which is pleasant and stylish nonethlesss. Matti Salminen offers here probably his best Sarastro – his phrasing is cleaner and more flowing than in his previous and subsequent recordings. The recorded sound is natural, but the orchestra could be a bit more richer.

Malin Hartelius (Pamina), Elena Mosuc (Queen of the Night), Piotr Beczala (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Opernhaus Zürichs Chor und Orchester, Franz Welser-Möst

Although the “Young Sherlock Holmes”-like sceneries might suggest some excitement, Jonathan Miller offers the most austere performance of Die Zauberflöte available on video. All the magic elements of the plot are replaced by… actually they are replaced by nothing. The story is set in a library and characters more or less dressed in Victorian fashion enter and exit for no specific purpose. Accordingly, stage direction is reduced to minimal. Straitjacketed by the proceedings, conductor Franz Welser-Möst seems to be dying to throw some energy into the event, trying to extract the occasional rough sonority from his orchestra, but the prevailing gloominess makes these moments rarer and rarer. As a matter of fact, when tempi do get buoyant, they simply do not fit in. Malin Hartelius is a lovely Pamina, floating creamy top notes without any hint of effort throughout. She handles Ach, ich fühl’s exquisitely. Elena Mosuc knows how to infuse some nastiness in her Queen of the Night, but all her intelligence, musicianship and good taste do not obliterate the fact that hers is too light a voice for the role. As a result, her high staccato singing sounds recessed and unimpressive. Piotr Beczala’s lachrymose and rather unimaginative Tamino belongs to the world of operetta. Matti Salminen’s Sarastro is a veteran’s performance. Of course, his dark powerful bass still retains some interest, but the truth is Mozart never was his best repertoire. Although Anton Scharinger is a quite mature Papageno, he is surprisingly the only member of the cast who seems to be having fun. His singing is far from smooth, but the necessary spontaneity is all there – and he knows how to have the audience on his side.

Rosa Mannion (Pamina), Natalie Dessay (Queen of the Night), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Reinhard Hagen (Sarastro), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

The Magic Flute was William Christie’s first Mozartian venture and his knowledge of baroque conventions was quite useful in the sense of creating transparent textures, but there is a prevailing softness and struggle for elegance that end on sameness There is something fussy about tempi and phrasing too – many numbers sound slower than one is used to hear these days, such as Papageno’s Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja, which seems pointless in this pace. I dislike the way Christie interprets some passage as being recitatives, with a kind of ad libitum approach, which ruins the rhythmic fluency of many moments. The cadenza for the three ladies in the opening number is a also a turn off and Mozart was right in cutting it. The most pleasing soloist is Rosa Mannion, displaying a warm creamy voice and reserves of imagination. Natalie Dessay is light voiced as the Queen of the Night and there is a velvety quality in her tone that prevents her from sounding evil at all. Hans-Peter Blochwitz and Anton Scharinger are quite consistent with what they did for Harnoncourt (see below), although the former is in slightly less bright voice and the later displays somewhat richer tone here. Last but not least, Reinhard Hagen is a reliable, dark-toned Sarastro.

Christiane Oelze (Pamina), Cyndia Sieden (Queen of the Night), Michael Schade (Tamino), Gerald Finlay (Papageno), Harry Peeters (Sarastro), The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner’s performance lacks conviction, although his tempi are very correct and the phrasing is aptly articulate. Again, his chorus is excellent, but the cast has only two notable performances: Christiane Oelze’s sensitive and vulnerable Pamina and Gerald Finlay’s funny and charming Papageno. The pretty-toned Cyndia Sieden, one of the lightest Queen of the Nights in recordings, is tested by the fast tempi. Michael Schade sounds here a drier and less expressive version of Peter Schreier and Harry Peeters is a rather anonymous Sarastro. The video is difficult to recommend. It is a semi-staged performance in the Concertgebouw. That means that there is very little space to act in since the orchestra occupies most of the stage. The ideas are creative, but make very little sense on video.

Barbara Bonney (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Kurt Streit (Tamino), Gilles Cachemaille (Papageno), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Sarastro), Drottningholm Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

Arnold Östman catches wonderfully the spirit of this work, but his CDs have even thinner orchestral sound that the rest of the series, making a full recommendation impossible. He has stylish and sensitive leading soprano and tenor here – Barbara Bonney is an exquisite Pamina and Kurt Streit is a dulcet-toned Tamino. Sumi Jo offers a more relaxed performance here than for Solti, which only makes us notice that her voice remains too light for the Queen of the Night, and Kristinn Sigmundsson is a bit dry-toned as Sarastro. Gilles Cachemaille is a pleasing, spontaneous Papageno.

Barbara Hendricks (Pamina), June Anderson (Queen of the Night), Jerry Hadley (Tamino), Thomas Allen (Papageno), Robert Lloyd (Sarastro), Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Charles MacKerras

Charles Mackerras’s recording is the most successful entry in his series of Mozart operas, a lively performance entirely in keeping with the light atmosphere of the piece. Although Barbara Hendricks clearly knows how the role of Pamina should be sung, the lack of purity and clean attack prevent her from achieving her goal. June Anderson’s voice could be cleaner too, but she is in impressive dramatic mood and seems to be in a fury in her dialogue before Der Hölle Rache. Jerry Hadley is a pleasant, fresh-sounding Tamino. Thomas Allen is similarly an unaffected and congenial Papageno. It is a pity that Robert Lloyd was already too rusty of voice when he recorded his Sarastro. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra plays beautifully and his real andante (i.e., not slow) tempo for Ach, ich fühl’s is everything I have always wanted to hear.

Kathleen Battle (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Manfred Hemm (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine

The video from the Metropolitan Opera House features David Hockney’s production, which looks a bit modest for the venue. Moreover, it has not aged very well and may seem amateurish now and then. James Levine is a seasoned Mozartian who never lets the performance sag and knows how to produce the right dramatic effect. Unfortunately, both orchestra and chorus are not entirely up to the task and those used to his Salzburg recording might miss the glamorous forces available there. Secondary roles are not really enticing either, with the notable exception of Heinz Zednik as Monostatos. Kathleen Battle’s silvery soprano glitters beautifully through a Mozartian phrase, even if this role ideally requires a lyric soprano, and she is the sexiest Pamina ever recorded. Although her acting is a bit overdone, her gracious figure makes one less severe about her stage presence. Luciana Serra’s Queen of the Night offers here a far more compelling performance than in studio. Her firm metallic voice, incisive delivery and instrumental coloratura are really exciting. Francisco Araiza, however, was not in his freshest voice, but is more varied and concerned than in the video from Munich. Kurt Moll too is more engaged in the proceedings here and is in particularly strong voice. Manfred Hemm’s Papageno is heavy and far from ingratiating. His eupeptic presence may seem refreshing at first, but it becomes a bit bothersome after some time.

Ruth Ziesak (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Deon van der Walt (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), René Pape (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

Ruth Ziesak (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Uwe Heilmann (Tamino), Michael Kraus (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

Georg Solti’s second recording of the Magic Flute is a great improvement on the 1969 set. His conducting developed towards a stylish, elegant and inteligent approach. The Vienna Philharmonic is entirely at home, offering fresh, fluent and strong playing. Moreover, the recorded sound has good balance between soloists and the orchestra, allowing for true dialogue between them, especially when woodwind is concerned. Ruth Ziesak is one of the lightest-voiced Paminas on recordings. Her pure tone and unmannered but intelligent performance make hers a youthful affecting performance. Although Sumi Jo is also light-voiced for the Queen of the Night, she handles the brightness of her voice to produce a strong effect. Her rhythmic accuracy, musicianship and impressive virtuoso quality include her in the list of the really impressive exponents of her role. Uwe Heilmann is also youthful and pleasant sounding, although he has his fluttery moments. Michael Kraus is rather rough-voiced as Papageno, but has the necessary earthiness. Kurt Moll’s classic Sarastro is unfortunately a bit on the dry side here. Finally, Andreas Schmidt is an effective Sprecher.

Dawn Upshaw (Pamina), Beverly Hoch (Queen of the Night), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Tamino), Andreas Schmidt (Papageno), Cornelius Hauptmann (Sarastro), Schütz Choir of London, London Classical Players, Roger Norrington

Roger Norrington’s recording is generally boycotted by reviewers, but it actually is a performance of some musical interest. The whole premise to the recording was making it the lightest possible, in according to a “pantomime” tradition. However, this is made without resorting to thin orchestral playing. On the contrary, the London Classical Players have a rich sound in which woodwind blend beautifully. Dance rhythms are found in every number of the score and intelligent musical-dramatic effects abound. His adoption for flowing andante could not be better advised and – as a result of it and of the extra clarity (ensured by natural warm recording) – some moments are particularly satisfying such as Drei Knäbchen hold, schön, jung or the trio of the boys Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen, with wonderful violin effects. When an orchestra “sings” so beautifully, the cast naturally takes second place – especially for none of the singers is particularly memorable. Both sopranos have slightly accented German and light voices. Musicianly as she is, Dawn Upshaw sounds a bit like a aggrandized Papagena and her voice spreads on the vowel “ee”. Although her handling of rhythm in Ach, ich fühl’s is admirable, her singing lacks pathos there. Beverly Hoch is probably the lightest-voiced Queen of the Night in the discography and the tone is not particularly beautiful – the voice sounds a bit elderly, but she turns it into advantage presenting a really nasty character from the start. Her coloratura is competent and she even shows off on vocalizing on the vowel of the text (instead of singing everything on “ah”). Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a most pleasant and boyish Tamino and Andreas Schmidt is wonderfully down-to-earth as Papageno. Unfortunately, Cornelius Hauptmann’s throaty Sarastro is disappointing. Nancy Argenta deserves mention for her lovely 1st Dame and the three boys are marvellously sung by three sopranos who sound perfectly child-like.

Anna Christina Biel (Pamina), Birgit Louise Frandsen (Queen of the Night), Stefan Dahlberg (Tamino), Mikael Samuelsson (Papageno), Lászlo Polgár (Sarastro), Drottningholm Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

I am afraid that, for the first time, I prefer the Drottningholm video to the CDs, probably because the recorded soundthere is richer. Anna Christina Biel is a light girlish Pamina and Stefan Dahlberg is a baritonal flexible Tamino. The Papageno is overfunny and the Queen of the Night is overparted. Lászlo Polgár offers the most interesting performance in the cast – his elegant Sarastro is probably the best example of his singing. It has the nobility and spiritual concentration lacking in many famous portraits. The staging, which tries to reproduce a performance in the XVIIIth century style, is unpretentious and charming exactly because of that.

Luba Orgonasová (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Gösta Winbergh (Tamino), Håkan Hagegård (Papageno), Franz-Josef Seliger (Sarastro), Choeurs de Chambre Romand et Pro Arte Lausanne, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Armin Jordan

Kiri Te Kanawa (Pamina), Cheryl Studer (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Olaf Bär (Papageno), Samuel Ramey (Sarastro), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner

Neville Marriner’s performance has a light, playful quality that makes this music sound spontaneous and easy-going as it should. The cast could be as fresh as the conducting, though. Stylish as they are, Kiri Te Kanawa and Francisco Araiza sound here too mature for Pamina and Tamino. Cheryl Studer, however, is an exciting Queen of the Night, albeit one who operates in slower tempi. Olaf Bär is an excellent Papageno and Samuel Ramey compensates unconvincing German with firm voiced singing. The recorded sound is excellent.

Barbara Bonney (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Opernhaus Zürichs Chor und Orchester, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording is an energetic and characterful performance. Of course, there are the occasional weird touches, such as the fussy phrasing in Papageno’s first aria and the slowest possible pace in Bei Männer and the Pamina/Tamino/Sarastro trio. However, the weirdest feature is the air hostess voice narrating the stories instead of the dialogues. The Zürich Opera Orchestra is in great shape and far livelier and clearer in articulation than the Concertgebouw for the Da Ponte operas by the same conductor. The cast is charming – the lovely Barbara Bonney, Edita Gruberová’s accurate articulation for great effect as the Queen of the Night and Hans-Peter Blochwitz’s handsome Tamino (really better here than in William Christie’s recording). I am not fond of Anton Scharinger’s heavy Papageno nor of Matti Salminen’s yawny Sarastro, though. There is also an excellent sexy-sounding trio of ladies (Pamela Coburn, Delores Ziegler and Marjana Lipovsek), Thomas Moser as the first man in armour and three excellent boys. Endearing as it is to find Waldemar Kmentt as the first priest, he is effortful in his duet.

Margaret Price (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Mikael Melbye (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Colin Davis

Although Colin Davis’s recording in Dresden is far from being the best in his Mozart series, it has its share of interest. Even if the tempi are not fast (except for a zipping Der Hölle Rache), there is a prevailing lightness and an avoidance of Romanticism, which is quite refreshing, especially for those who like it with a big orchestra. The Staatskapelle Dresden does not let these listeners down – it offers beautiful sounds thoughout, with clear woodwind. The conductor shapes phrases lovingly and ends on convincing even when things could be a bit more animated. Although Margaret Price’s voice was not as light as it used to be, her Pamina is an overwhelming performance. Not only does she take advantage of the extra richness of tone for the more dramatic moments, but also she scales down beautifully whenever necessary. Luciana Serra, however, is an extra light Queen of the Night. Although she has good ideas and impressive coloratura, she sounds rather small-scaled.  Peter Schreier is not as fresh toned as in the Sawallisch CDs, but is still an exemplary Tamino. A congested top note or two will easily be overlooked considering the tenor’s good taste, stylishness and imagination. At this stage of his career, it is impressive that he was still able to project such boyishness in his interpretation. Michael Melbye is an unsteady Papageno, but Kurt Moll is again a most reliable Sarastro. Also worth of mention are Theo Adam’s stern Sprecher and Marie McLaughlin’s charming First Lady. The Knaben are sang by the boys of the Kreuzchor. The recorded sound is very good. Also, the dialogue (delivered by a group of actors) is absolutely complete.

Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Bayerischen Staatsoperorchester und chor, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s video from Munich repeats some of the cast of Haitink’s CDs, but it is a far less compelling performance as a whole. August Everding’s production is not particularly creative, although there is nothing really ugly on stage. Endearingly as she sings, Lucia Popp’s soprano sounds a bit heavy two years after her studio recording. Edita Gruberová is not at her best high f-form here, but she has every other weapon a Queen of the Night should have in her command. Francisco Araiza, Wolfgang Brendel and Kurt Moll sing beautifully, but bureaucratically, and Sawallisch’s conducting is a bit lackadaisical.

Ileana Cotrubas (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Christian Boesch (Papageno), Martti Talvela (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

Recorded live at the Felsenreitschule, James Levine’s Salzburg video features an imaginative production by Jean-Pierre Ponelle, which however looks its age. Some of the soloists are too mature for their roles as well, especially Pamina and Tamino. Both Ileana Cotrubas and Peter Schreier had by then established reputations as Mozartians, but their singing had lost its smoothness and poise. She often sounds fluttery and he displays too metallic a tone for comfort. As the Queen of the Night, Edita Gruberová offers an immaculate if not entirely hair-raising performance. However, the Strahlen der Sonnen deserved a more Mozartian advocate than Martti Talvela, who sounds uncomfortable with Mozart’s sinewy lines and his sense of pitch leaves more than something to be desired. As Papageno, Christian Boesch ends on winning our hearts rather through his animation and artistic generosity than through sheer vocal allure. Finally, the trio of ladies (Edda Moser, Ann Murray and Ingrid Mayr) is truly distinguished. The Vienna Philharmonic offers elegant sonorities throughout, and Levine’s unaffected but affecting conducting is light on the ear. Unfortunately, the open air recording involves artifficial sound image and more often than not recessed orchestral sound, if clear enough.

Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Siegfried Jerusalem (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Roland Bracht (Sarastro), Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester und Chor, Bernard Haitink

One could rightly say that Bernard Haitink’s recording is the right choice if one wants a traditional approach in digital sound. Although the basic atmosphere could make one think of Klemperer or even Colin Davis, Haitink’s basically unfussed and uninflected interpretation, although it does not dazzle, it does not displease anyone either. It benefits from beautiful orchestral playing from the Bavarian Radio orchestra and a very strong team of soloists – it is also spaciously recorded, which fits the performance. Lucia Popp’s Pamina is endearing, sung in warm tone and phrasing arrestingly. Edita Gruberová is again an efficient Queen of the Night, offering impressive coloratura. Few people would suspect how good is Siegfried Jerusalem’s Tamino. He was in particularly fresh voice and sings with disarming naturality. Although Wolfgang Brendel’s voice is really beautiful, his Papagno is a bit phlegmatic. The weakest link in the cast is, however, Roland Bracht’s Fafnerian Sarastro.

Edith Mathis (Pamina), Karin Ott (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Gottfried Hornik (Papageno), José van Dam (Sarastro), Chor der Deutschen Oper, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan’s second recording is basically the opposite approach to the first one – there the cast was Viennese and the conducting was fast and animated; here the cast is international and the conducting is Viennese. Although the tempi are not necessarily very slow (only in the “serious” moments), the articulation is quite soft and pellucid throughout. It is basically a grandiose performance, where spontaneity is not always there, although it is bound to please those who like big orchestral playing. The overture is very sophisticated and puzzling, with dynamics used in a original but artifficial way. Woodwind are clear enough, and some endearing details appear now and then such, as the staccato playing of the double bass in Drei Knäbchen. The recorded sound is a bit eccentric, with big acoustics to the orchestra and a drier one for the singers, recorded in varied levels. I thought that Araiza seemed to be in a more constricted and dimmer perspective than the ladies in the first scene, for example. Edith Mathis is a nervous-toned Pamina who lacks poise and legato in the highest notes, but has notion of Mozartian style. She could be a bit more smiling here and there too. Karin Ott was controversial casting as the Queen of the Night. I think she is the precise example of what Karajan expected of a singer in this role – to be a “machine gun”. Although she has the weird habit of singing her coloratura in groups of two notes, she is aptly powerful and hits her high staccato notes with impressive energy – she also fines down her steely tone to some soft notes in the first section of her first aria. Francisco Araiza’s Tamino has the advantage of refined use of dynamics and flexibility and his tone is full and pleasant. He would be a reference Tamino if allowed to sing more intimately – but I understand this is out of the scope of this recording. Gottfried Hornik is a spontaneous Papageno with a good sense of comedy. Even if he had his arias transposed up, José van Dam lacks weight as Sarastro. It still sounds low for his voice and, even if the idea was to make Sarastro nobler, he ends on sounding indifferent. The casting of the ladies involves some weighty vocalism – Anna Tomowa-Sintowa’s non-mozartian soprano sounds particularly bothersome despite all her refinement. Heinz Kruse’s firm voiced characterful Monostatos deserves special mention.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Peter Hofmann (Tamino), Philippe Huttenlocher (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Choeur et Orchestre de l’Opéra de Strasbourg, Alain Lombard

Alain Lombard’s recording of The Magic Flute has long been deleted from the catalogue and is practically impossible to find. Considering the impossibly heavy and graceless conducting, unflowing tempi and not entirely tidy orchestral sound, it is not really a great loss. Famous and well-loved numbers sound here monotonous and singers have a very difficult time trying to fill in the blanks left by the impossible approach chosen by the conductor. Sometimes, Lombard seems to take the sudden decision of hasten things (particularly abruptly in Pamina’s “attempted suicide” scene), but the results are far from clean. To make things worse, the recorded sound is unclear and reverberant. With one notable exception, the cast is quite tempting on the other hand. Although her German dialogues are almost embarrassing, Kiri Te Kanawa is in exquisite voice as Pamina and sings a truly touching Ach, ich fühl’s. Truth be sad, she is rather unconcerned most of the time, but the voice is a reward in itself. Edita Gruberová is, as always, an efficient Queen of the Night, here a bit uncomfortable with the slow pace for her second aria. Philippe Huttenlocher is a velvety-toned, spontaneous, amiable  if not really accurate Papageno who finds a vivacious and imaginative Papagena in Kathleen Battle, but Kurt Moll takes pride of place with his richly sung Sarastro who seems to make a virtue out of the ponderous conducting in his aria. Although Peter Hofmann is trying really hard to produce Mozartian singing, he is so utterly miscast as Tamino that it is better not to delve into details.

Anneliese Rothenberger (Pamina), Edda Moser (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Bayerischen Staatsopernorchester und chor, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1972 recording could be called a safe choice. The tempi are neither fast nor slow and there is nothing heavy about this performance. Woodwind are nicely prominent, but the strings’ articulation could be clearer and less pellucid. Although Anneliese Rothenberger has very good ideas throughout, her soprano is not clean enough and the results are not always Mozartian. However, if you believe the Queen of the Night should sound like lightings and thunderbolts, here you find Edda Moser as the most forceful soprano recorded in this role. She hits her high f’s as if she were singing the Immolation Scene in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, while keeping good control of her coloratura. Unfortunately, there is little contrast between her first and second aria and her triplets in Der Hölle Rache are heavily handled, but few sopranos sing the high staccato passages a tempo as she does in this aria. Peter Schreier offers again his fresh-sounding Tamino, while Walter Berry records his last Papageno, an irresistible portrayal. Kurt Moll is a newcomer to studios as Sarastro. It is already a most satisfying and mature performance. The Tölzer Boys and the Monostatos (Willi Brokmeier) are excellent, but Olivera Miljakovic sounds kitsch as Papagena and Leonore Kirchstein ruins an otherwise strong team of three ladies.

Pilar Lorengar (Pamina), Cristina Deutekom (Queen of the Night), Stuart Burrows (Tamino), Hermann Prey (Papageno), Martti Talvela (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

It seems that in his 1969 recording, Solti had Meistersinger in mind while he was conducting this Zauberflöte – the cast had also been chosen accordingly. Although the orchestral sound is all right light and the tempi are not necessarily slow (and there is the required clarity), the performance drags. The comedy scenes are particularly ineffective, since there is a superficial cuteness going on without the necessary zest and intelligence to make it work. It should be pointed out, however, that some of the serious episodes benefit from the splendid sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic and full-toned choral singing. Pilar Lorengar’s vibrant soprano will always remain an acquired taste in Mozart. Her artistry is beyond reproach nonetheless: her phrasing is stylish, her vivid response to the text is refreshing and she always has a trick or two in her sleeves for the key moments. Cristina Deutekom’s impressively full-toned, a tempo Queen of the Night certainly deserves all the praises she has received, but her yodelling coloratura is quite exotic. Stuart Burrows is a sensitive rich-voiced Tamino. Unfortunately, his ardour is not always in line with Mozartian style. The most serious victim of Solti’s miscalculations, Hermann Prey is a dull Papageno, even in spite of his gorgeous voice and stylishness. The result is too noble and homogeneous. As a compensation, Martti Talvela was in good behaviour and offers his best performance in a Mozart opera. Nobler Sarastros are certainly going to be found elsewhere, but this is an inspired performance, thoroughly sung. The three ladies lack sparkle, but Gerhard Stolze is a marvellous Monostatos. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau also offers a highly intelligent performance as the Sprecher. Finally, the recorded sound could be less favourable to singers.

Evelyn Lear (Pamina), Roberta Peters (Queen of the Night), Fritz Wunderlich (Tamino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Papageno), Franz Crass (Sarastro), RIAS Kammerchor, Berliner Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Although Karl Böhm was a distinguished Mozartian in his days, I could never warm to his approach to Die Zauberflöte. Aided by the Berliner Philharmoniker’s dense strings, the whole experience makes one think of sounds Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, act II. One must point out that the sound is ultimately not heavy, but his tempi are too considerate for comfort. Evelyn Lear sings Pamina with intelligence and good taste, but the tone is not very glamorous and she seems to be concentrated on producing the notes. It is a pity that Roberta Peters was in such a raw voice and that her intonation has its dubious moments, for she cleverly lets us see that the Queen of the Night is not exactly a good girl in the first aria. When it comes to Tamino, there is a performance of legendary status – Fritz Wunderlich in characteristic ardent mood and gleaming voice. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s is simply too mannered for Papageno and his voice, if easy, is here no longer mellifluous as it used to be. This is probably Franz Crass’s best operatic performance. Although his is not a deep bass, his velvety and flexible voice together with his beautiful phrasing makes him a noble Sarastro. The trio of ladies is not truly graceful and DG’s decision to invite James King and Martti Talvela for the Armoured Men makes for the heaviest version of that scene ever available.

Gundula Janowitz (Pamina), Lucia Popp (Queen of the Night), Nicolai Gedda (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Gottlob Frick (Sarastro), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer

When the issue is Otto Klemperer’s recording, even if one could complain that the orchestra may sound heavy, I would counterargue: when there is such level of clarity (wonderful woodwind throughout) and forward movement (even when the tempi could be faster), it is really worth while listening. The dialogues would have helped to bring more lightness and their absence is regrettable. Also, more flexible and slimmer strings would have been providential. Gundula Janowitz’s 100% Mozartian soprano is a delight for the ears, even if, in this first recording of hers, she was a bit shy about interpretation. Another débutante is Lucia Popp, whose incisive singing, rhythmic accuracy, musicianship and intelligence place her right in the top of the list of the good Queens of the Night. Nicolai Gedda was not in his freshest voice when he recorded it, but is consistently expressive and avoids trap no.1 for Tamino: making it sound like a heroic tenor role. Walter Berry’s Papageno is not as spontaneous as in Böhm’s recording, but is still congenial and creative. The three ladies in this recording are no more no less than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Marga Höffgen – and they make a spirited and harmonious team. Lisa Otto is also an excellent Papagena. However, Gottlob Frick lacks deep low notes and nobility for the role. Also, he was clearly in very poor voice. The three boys are sang by women – for unstylish results. The recorded sound could have a bit more focus, although voices are naturally recorded. In a nutshell, a bit on the Beethovenian side, but certainly worth while listening.

Lisa della Casa (Pamina), Erika Köth (Queen of the Night), Léopold Simoneau (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Böhme (Sarastro), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, George Szell

Live from Salzburg, there is also Georg Szell’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1959, which shares with Karl Böhm some singers. First of all, it is so refreshing to see how conscious a Mozartian Szell was back then. His tempi are animated, his phrasing is alert and he makes everything he can in order to prevent it to sound cute. However, his forces do not respond consistently – it seems that the musicians under his baton were not prepared to deal with this approach, since there are mismatches between orchestra and soloists and inside the orchestra itself in annoying levels. According to what I understood, this was a prise de rôle for Lisa della Casa – and this is surprising, since it is her best recorded performance of a Mozart opera. Her Pamina is delightful – girlish, sensitive, stylish and involved. Erika Köth is light beyond salvation as the Queen of the Night, but it is amazing how easily she copes with one of the fastest accounts (if not the fastest) of Der Hölle Rache in the discography. Léopold Simoneau offers a performance similar to the one he recorded for Böhm; although his Dies Bildnis is really affected, he tends to be more at ease here. Walter Berry is again a fresh and most natural Papageno and he does wonders in dialogue. Kurt Böhme, however, was in very poor voice for Sarastro, though. Hans Hotter sounds yawny as the Sprecher, but the ladies, the boys (Wiener Sängerknaben) and the Papagena (Graziella Sciutti) are good. The recorded sound is natural and well balanced.

Hilde Güden (Pamina), Wilma Lipp (Queen of the Night), Léopold Simoneau (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Böhme (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Karl Böhm’s first studio recording of Die Zauberflöte is too Viennese for comfort in its cosy operetta-like atmosphere. As in Berlin, the orchestral sound is not heavy, but tempi tend to drag. Although Hilde Güden and Wilma Lipp’s voices are clear and agile, they sound tacky for modern listeners – especially the soubrettish Lipp. Léopold Simoneau is also out of style and has poor German. To make things worse, Paul Schöffler is poorly focused as the Sprecher and Kurt Böhm is rough as Sarastro. Only Walter Berry’s rich-toned and spontaneous Papageno provides some pleasure here. The three ladies (with the exception of an immeditaly recognizable Christa Ludwig) are kitsch too.