Die Zauberflöte

RYAN WIGGLESWORTH, 2019
Sofia Fomina (Pamina), Caroline Wettergreen (Queen of the Night), David Portillo (Tamino), Björn Bürger (Papageno), Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro), The Glyndebourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ryan Wigglesworth

Directing team Barbe and Doucet’s production of The Magic Flutefor Glyndebourne is a painted backdrop version of a grand hotel extravaganza à la Wes Anderson. There is an abundance of ideas that do not really cohere – Sarastro’s hieratic order is some sort of Cordon Bleu society, the Queen of the Night appears as Emmeline Pankhurst with a trio of suffragettes, Papageno is travelling salesman etc etc. It is all visually catching, overbusy and entertaining. Ryan Wigglesworth, on the other hand, is a conductor who does not take risks. This is a performance entirely played on the safe side. Tempi are relaxed in a way that allows the rich-toned period-instrument orchestra to tackle passagework comfortably and balance is almost ideal throughout. He shows great consideration for his singers, helping them whenever they need. If it were an audio-only release, maybe this would mean that there is nothing new to be checked here, but as a soundtrack to the imaginative staging, maybe it is the safest choice in recent years. Here the three ladies get to sing the awkward cadenza in the end fo the opening number – and Sarastro and the Queen of the Night indulge in adding lower or higher notes than those written by Mozart wrote for no particularly impressive effect. Sofia Fomina is a creamy-toned Pamina whose high register can be too vibrant for this repertoire. In a performance otherwise sensitively sung, her Ach, ich fühl’s sounds short of feeling. Caroline Wettergreen’s soprano lacks substance for the Queen of the Night and intonation is hardly faultless. Once you get used to the metallic quality of his voice, David Portillo proves to be a musicianly, intelligent Tamino. Björn Bürger leaves nothing to be desired as Papageno – his baritone firm and pleasant in tone and he is funny without resorting to any exaggeration. An impressively dark-toned Sarastro, Brindley Sherratt finds no problem in seamlessly delving into his low register . The trio of ladies is ill-matched, but Michael Kraus and Jörg Schneider are is both well cast as the Sprecher and Monostatos.

CONSTANTINOS CARYDIS, 2018
Christiane Karg (Pamina), Albina Shagimuratova (Queen of the Night), Mauro Peter (Tamino), Adam Plachetka (Papageno), Matthias Goerne (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Constantinos Carydis

Lydia Steier’s production for the Salzburg Festival, is a story inside the story. The original dialogues have been replaced by a narrator, actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, grandfather who reads a bedtime story to his three grandchildren in the days before WWI. The kids’ imagination picture Tamino as one of their tin soldiers, their mother as the Queen of the Night and, as soon as they move towards circus-like Sarastro’s realm, it becomes clearer that there is a clash of Weltanschauungen that is going to put an end not only to Pamina and Tamino’s but also the children’s innocence with the horrors of war. Does this agenda sound ambitious? Yes, it is. There is too much information on stage, the sets are too dark and I don’t think a child would have much fun with it. In order to appreciate the sociopolitical mambo jumbo, grown-ups would have to pay the price of slapstick buffoonery. Constantino Carydis’s conducting too is a bit all over the place – the concept seems to take René Jacobs’s recording as an example – schyzophrenic tempi, abrupt accents, fortepiano plus harpsichord continuo – and take it to an entirely new level of gracelessness, lack of expression and awkwardness. The Vienna Philharmonic responds adeptly to its mission of emulating a period-instrument orchestra and, when allowed to make music, offers clarity aplenty. As in Baden-Baden, Christiane Karg knows the rule of Mozartian style, but her voice here sounds even more astringent. Albina Shagimuratova is again a forceful Queen of the Night, but also an unwieldy one who – in the conductor’s fast tempi – often skips one or two notes written by Mozart in her melisme. Mauro Peter’s pellucid tenor sounds often disconnected above the passaggio and his Tamino could do with a little bit more legato too. Miscast in a basso profondo role, Matthias Goerne huffs and puffs a lot, yet fails to produce clean, full and dark sounds. He too is sabotaged by the conductor’s fondness for speed in his second aria. In this cast, Adam Plachetka’s rather emphatic and Papageno cannot help calling some attention. His baritone sounds rich if unvaried and his word-pointing is intelligent in an almost fussy way.

YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN, 2018
Christiane Karg (Pamina), Albina Shagimuratova (Queen of the Night), Klaus Florian Vogt (Tamino), Rolando Villazón (Papageno), Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro), RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europa, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Magic Flute was recorded in concert in Baden-Baden and, as usual in his series of Mozart operas, features a starry cast. However, the selling point here is actually his lively, stylish and transparent conducting. Under his baton, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe offers clean, articulated and well-balanced playing, well matched to the RIAS Kammerchor’s spontaneous singing (although the women have pride of place over her male colleagues in the aural picture). Nézet-Séguin’s tempi tend to animation, but are never overfast and he shows here true sensitivity to Mozart’s demands in terms of accentuation. His soloists are all of them very competent, but almost all of them lack involvement and there is nothing truly memorable in terms of singing in these CDs. Christiane Karg, for instance, is musicianly and vocally unproblematic and yet her timbre lacks glamor and after a while one does not really care about her Pamina. Albina Shagimuratova still has the in alts for her Queen of the Night, but the tone can be piercing, the vibrato is a bit unwieldy and her runs are not immaculate. Those who are not fond of Klaus Florian Vogt’s clear-toned singing in Wagner roles usually say that he is nothing but an ambitious Tamino. So here, finally recorded in that role, one can finally make his or her opinion. Indeed, the purity of tone and the sheer effortlessness (and also the natural size of his voice) make him seem entirely at easy even when things do get difficult. Even if the experience is quite refreshing, one soon realizes that he is not legato’s best friend and that, clear as his native German is, he does not sound really involved with the text. He also tends to overshadow his more modestly voiced Pamina. Rolando Villazón is the exception in terms of animation in the cast. He is, of course, a tenor in a baritone role and he tends to compensate with hyperactivity what he lacks in resonance. In ensembles, the absence of a real low voice is sometimes missed, but the crystalline recorded sound allows listeners to tell him from the tenor in the tenor role. Franz-Josef Selig is an experienced Sarastro with an authoritative and rich lower register. His voice has seen firmer days, though. Last but not least, Regula Mühlemann is a charming Papagena.

SIMON RATTLE, 2013
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 Pamina and Tamino 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.

MARC ALBRECHT, 2012
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.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2012
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.

ROLAND BÖER, 2011
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.

RENÉ JACOBS, 2009
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.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2007
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.

RICCARDO MUTI, 2006
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.

CLAUDIO ABBADO, 2005
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. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a dark-toned, elegant and congenial Papageno, while René Pape is a rich-voiced noble Sarastro. 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.

SIGISWALD KUIJKEN, 2004
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.

COLIN DAVIS, 2003
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.

IVÁN FISCHER, 2001
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.

FRANZ WELSER-MÖST, 2000
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.

WILLIAM CHRISTIE, 1995
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. Christie can be 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 the conductor 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 also a turn off and Mozart was right in cutting it. Rosa Mannion is a warm-, creamy-toned Pamina who sings with feeling and imagination. Natalie Dessay’s soprano is light for the Queen of the Night and the 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.

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, 1995
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

On paper, John Eliot Gardiner’s recording would be an obvious recommendation, and its assets easily outweigh its liabilities. Gardiner offers a truly classical perspective of the score – the rhythmic rigour in almost consistently brisk tempi, the dry orchestral sound, the ideally balanced choral singing and a very solid cast are hard to overlook. And yet one quickly notices a permanent emotional detachment, even in lyric numbers, that fails to fully engage the listener. The conductor’s disciplinarian beat prevents variety and gives limited leeway for expression to these singers; the lack of warmth in the string section does not involve extra gain in clarity in articulation and the lack of orchestral tone makes for a sensation of emptiness in moments when sustained tension is necessary. On the contrary, maybe due to the fast tempi, many phrases come across as rather blurred. Christiane Oelze is a pure-, creamy-toned Pamina whose singing is just fautless, if a bit cold. Having to deal with egg-timer tempi, Cyndia Sieden, a light, rather pretty-toned Queen of the Night, acquits herself commendably. Michael Schade is a stylish Tamino with a splash of Peter Schreier in his tonal quality. George Finley sings the role of Papageno with disarming naturalness, and his firm, focused baritone is always a pleasure on the ear. Harry Peeters’s grainy bass is sometimes too dry to suggest Sarastro’s benign authority. The video is difficult to recommend. It is a semi-staged performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 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 for home watching.

MICHAEL HALÁSZ, 1993
Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz (Pamina), Hellen Known (Queen of the Night), Herbert Lippert (Tamino), Georg Tichy (Papageno), Kurt Rydl (Sarastro), Hungarian Festival Chorus, Failoni Orchestra Budapest, Michael Halász

Even if almost no individual feature of Michael Halász’s would be considered competitive in a starry discography, this is a recording in which the sum is greater than the parts. It would go to the same slot where Sawallisch is (SEE BELOW) , albeit in a post-Harnoncourt world where excessive Romanticism is no longer accepted. The performance has rhythmic vitality, but the conductor never forces either in rushing things forward; it is affecting without being cute; it is spirited without being clownish. The Failoni orchestra has an ideal bright and flexible sound for this repertoire and the chorus is well balanced. It is, therefore, sad the acoustics are so resonant, obscuring a bit passagework from the supple string section and ensemble with singers. No singer in the cast spoils the fun, but only Herbert Lippert cannot fear comparison even with legendary singers from the past. His dulcet, clear tenor fills Mozartian line with absolute naturalness and elegance. Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz’s soprano can sound quite grainy and vibrant in its top notes and there are occasional awkward moments, and yet she sings her aria with real feeling and creaminess of tone. Hellen Kwon’s Queen of the Night ideally would need some polish – although there are tiny glitches here and there, she moves forward with aplomb. Georg Tichy is a mature-sounding, warm-toned spontaneous Papageno, more vivacious than funny (what is always refreshing). Kurt Rydl is often accused of a certain tremulousness of emission, but here is in his best voice, singing Sarastro’s music with richness of tone and full low notes. The three young singers in the role of the genii are excellent, while the three ladies are not really well matched. There is a reasonable amount of dialogue, competently delivered by the cast.

ARNOLD ÖSTMAN, 1992
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

With Arnold Östman, one finds an ideal balance of musical and theatrical values in the way he makes clear the idea behind every phrase. The listener simultaneously hears how it fits in the structure of every number, but mostly what effect Mozart had in mind on writing it. No tempo sounds too fast or too slow here. Östman has a very flexible beat and know when is time to relax for expression and to rush for excitement. Alas, as in the other items in his series, his orchestra lacks tone and one craves for more sound and more colour. In a previous version of this review, I wrote that this made a recommendation impossible, but the truth is that – on comparing it to many other recordings, I couldn’t help marvelling at the unaffected intelligence and behind his approach (but always wishing that a different orchestra had been chosen…). Barbara Bonney is a Pamina of absolute purity of tone who floats mezza voce at will. Her habit of leaving the end of phrases unsupported is not to everyone’s taste, though. Sumi Jo offers here a more relaxed performance than she did for Solti, what only makes clearer that her voice is light for the role of the Queen of the Night. Kurt Streit is a musicianly, stylish Tamino. Gilles Cachemaille sings the role of Papageno with a smile in the voice and artless vivaciousness. Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass has the right color and range for the part of Sarastro. He phrases with classical restraint, but the tone is on the dry side. Here you’ll find also Ruth Ziesak, Solti’s Pamina, as the First Lady and Iris Vermillion (Solti’s Second Lady) as the First Lady. Håkan Hagegård is the Sprecher, Herbert Lippert (Michael Halász’s Tamino) as the First Priest and Lilian Watson as Papagena. With the exception of Sumi Jo, all singers in main roles deliver their own lines in dialogues.

CHARLES MACKERRAS, 1991
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

An experienced Mozart conductor, Charles Mackerras has an ideally balanced orchestra and lovely tempi in keeping with the light atmosphere of the piece. However, the recordings sessions took place in a very reverberant hall that make absolute clarity of articulation impossible. Barbara Hendricks is an engaged Pamina with an appealing tone, distinctive in its slightly smoky quality. Yet she lacks purity of line and cleanliness of attack. June Anderson’s voice is sometimes often on the metallic and vibrant side, especially in her high register. Her coloratura is, of course, nimble, even in the fast pace adopted by the conductor, and she is in unusually fiery mood here, delivering an intense dialogue before Der Hölle Rache. Jerry Hadley is a boyish-toned Tamino, whose tenor opens up in full high notes. He is not entirely at ease with the German language, though. Thomas Allen is a spontaneous, spirited Papageno, always easy on the ear. Robert Lloyd has the range, the authority and the darkness of tone for Sarastro, but the voice sounds here pronouncedly nasal in its lower reaches and lacks firmness in its highest end. There are long chunks of dialogue, delivered with various levels of  proficiency by a cast almost entirely made of non-native speakers.

JAMES LEVINE, 1991
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. Even if orchestra and chorus are not entirely up to the level of the Vienna Philharmonic (SEE BELOW), the conductor is closer to the mark here in terms of style and clarity. Kathleen Battle’s silvery soprano glitters beautifully through a Mozartian phrase, even if this role ideally requires a lyric soprano. Her acting is a bit mannered too. Luciana Serra’s Queen of the Night offers here a far more compelling performance than in studio (SEE COLIN DAVIS BELOW). Her firm metallic voice, incisive delivery and instrumental coloratura are really exciting. Francisco Araiza, however, was not in his freshest voice, yet he is more varied and concerned than in the video from Munich (SEE SAWALLISCH BELOW). 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.

GEORG SOLTI, 1991
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

Recorded by ORF, the video of Georg Solti’s second Magic Flute in Salzburg (the first one was in 1955) was taped when the conductor was 79. He proves here that age is in the mind. He proves to his understanding of the work has evolved since his studio recording in 1969, offering a quicksilvery reading of the score, the Vienna Philharmonic at its lightest and most flexible in the conductor’s swift tempi, precise accents and ideal balance. The recorded sound captures too much noise from stage and perspectives vary when singers move on stage. Johannes Schaaf’s production is a bit all over the place – it is mostly abstract and colourful to a fault, but has its episodes of “ethnic” aesthetics, with bamboos, tribal costumes and blackface. The cast is required to move a lot, but looks a bit clueless about the reason for so much going to and fro. Ruth Ziesak is a pure-toned, musicianly Pamina who sings without a hint of affectation and absolute understanding of the style. Luciana Serra is in better voice at the video from New York, but is no less precise in her fioriture and staccato. Deon van der Walt is a fresh-toned, elegant Tamino. Anton Scharinger offers here his best Papageno and delivers his dialogues with congeniality in Austrian accent. The very young René Pape would still need to mature in the part – the lower notes would eventually get fuller and easier – yet it was from the beginning a voice of immediate appeal. Small roles were glamorously cast – Heinz Zednik effective as always as Papageno, a forceful Sprecher in Franz Grundheber, three ladies cast from strength in Inga Nielsen, Iris Vermillion and Jard van Nes and three excellent boys from the Tölzer Knabenchor.

GEORG SOLTI, 1990 
Ruth Ziesak (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Uwe Heilmann (Tamino), Michael Kraus (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

In studio, if Solti’s reading is more polished, it also seems rather well-behaved compared to the video recorded live in Salzburg. Here, the Vienna Philharmonic sounds somewhat more Romantic in its full roundness and fullness of tone in more reverberant acoustics, and the conductor is also less incisive and characterful too. In any case, this is still preferable to the 1969 studio recording and, at any rate, a safe option as far as “traditional” performances go. As much as Solti, Ruth Ziesak’s singing is even smoother in studio, an example of  l’art qui cache l’art itself. In spite of the lightness of her soprano, Sumi Jo sang the role of the Queen of the Night for a long while in her career. The way she boosted the brightness of her tone, her rhythmic accuracy and technical exuberance really make an impression in this role. Uwe Heilmann’s dulcet tenor may sound a bit grainy in exposed high notes, but his aptly boyish timbre, tonal and dynamic variety make him a winsome Tamino. Michael Kraus comes through as a rather rough, earthy Papageno. Kurt Moll is again an ideal Sarastro. Minor roles are as glamorously cast as they would be in Salzburg: Adrienne Pieczonka’s first lady, Andreas Schmidt’s Sprecher, Heinz Zednik’s Monostatos et al.

ROGER NORRINGTON, 1990
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 Knaben 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 an aggrandised 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 pleasant and boyish Tamino and Andreas Schmidt is wonderfully down-to-earth as Papageno. Cornelius Hauptmann’s Sarastro is rather on the throaty side, though. Nancy Argenta deserves mention for her lovely first lady and the three boys are marvellously sung by three sopranos who sound perfectly child-like.

ARNOLD ÖSTMAN, 1989
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 (SEE ABOVE), 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.

ARMIN JORDAN, 1989
Luba Orgonasová (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Gösta Winbergh (Tamino), Håkan Hagegård (Papageno), Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro), Choeurs de Chambre Romand et Pro Arte Lausanne, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Armin Jordan

Armin Jordan leads what one could have called a safe-buy traditional performance that, however, does not ultimately deliver either the playful pantomime elements of the plot or the depth of feeling of lyric numbers. Moments like Ach, ich fühl’s sound downright funereal. The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris has a pellucid sound and a smoothness of articulation that denies Mozart’s the clarity and lightness it requires. On paper, the recording features a foolproof cast (the trio of ladies involve Charlotte Margiono and Nathalie Stutzmann), but the truth is that the lack of atmosphere seems to have had a perverse effect on these singers. Luba Orgonasová’s creamy-toned, stylish and immaculate singing would make her an ideal Pamina, but her heart seems to be elsewhere. Sumi Jo is again a flashing, bell-toned Queen of the Night, here a little bit less engaged than she would be for Solti. Gösta Winbergh is a Tamino of great refinement, but again very little involvement. Håkan Hagegård, congenial of tone and spontaneous of phrasing, is even less concerned and entirely out of character. Franz-Josef Selig has the voix du rôle – it is deep, noble and pleasant on the ear. Here he sounds, however, a bit cautious and busy with his notes. Dialogues are delivered by a group of actors.

NEVILLE MARRINER, 1989
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

In his studio recording, Neville Marriner goes beyond the qualities that mark some of the safe choices in this discography: clarity and rhythmic vitality. He offers here a real understanding of Mozartian phrasing, playing all the orchestral effects in the score with a watchmaker’s precision. Here every note fizzles and twinkles, as a work with magic instruments, genii and dragons demands. Why is then the results give a certain studio-bound impression? I would blame the starry cast. One can see that adjustments had to be made for the famous singers gathered here. This is less of an ensemble and more of a series of solo performances. The main victim is, of course, theatrical interaction. Kiri Te Kanawa is, of course, a distinguished Mozartian with a deluxe voice who sounds here simply too mature and sophisticated for the role of Pamina. Moreover, she seems little concerned with the texts and her delivery of spoken dialogues is that of someone who is actually reading them out loud. Her early performance (SEE BELOW for LOMBARD) is preferable for its freshness of tone and naturalness. Cheryl Studer is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano Queen of the Night. This has the obvious advantage of creating an impression of authority and imperiousness in a role usually cast with lighter voices. Unlike Edda Moser (SEE BELO for SAWALLISCH), however, she is not comfortable with the high staccato in Der Hölle Rache and, even in the slower tempo procured by the conductor, one feels how difficult the whole thing is. Francisco Araiza too sounds here too mature for Tamino, the tone sometimes too covered and vibrant for this music. Differently from his Pamina, though, he colors the text expertly and sings with imagination and good taste. His performance for Karajan (SEE BELOW) remains his best account of this role. Olaf Bär is a fresh-toned Papageno who never misses an opportunity to make a musical and dramatic point. Being a native speaker, he is in advantage here and really gives life to all dialogues in which he takes part. Samuel Ramey’s versatility and extraordinary voice and technique allowed him to do whatever he wanted – and here he sings Sarastro. unfazed by the low tessitura. His repertoire involved classical and baroque music and he is comfortable with the style too. If his Sarastro ultimately fails to convince, this might have to do with his cautious delivery of the German text and a certain exuberance of utterance rarely associated to a part usually taken with restraint and profoundness. As in the other items in this series with the Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, the cast is completed by noted singers such as José Van Dam (Sprecher), Eva Lind (Papagena), Aldo Baldin (Monostatos) and Yvonne Kenny (First Lady). Harry Peeters, Gardiner’s Sarastro, is here the second priest and the second man in armour.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1987
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. As always, he is the kind of conductor who cannot help micromanaging. This involves constant fluctuation of beat, unusual accents and encouraging singers to adopt fussy turns of phrase. Some tempi are aria curious in itself, such as the slowest  Bei Männer in the discography. The Zürich Opera Orchestra sounds brighter toned and clearer in articulation than the Concertgebouw on duty in the recordings of the Da Ponte operas with the same conductor. Barbara Bonney sings with absolute poise and loveliness of tone. Her performance as Pamina here is more affecting than the one she would later record for Arnold Östman.  Edita Gruberová is entirely at ease with the fast tempi in Der Hölle Rache, offering accurate articulation and flashing high notes. Hans-Peter Blochwitz is a dulcet-toned Tamino, fresher-toned than he would be in William Chrstie’s recording. This is Anton Scharinger’s first recorded Papageno, here a little bit smoother of tone, if already a bit heavy-handed with the comedy touches. This is also Matti Salminen’s first appearance in the discography as Sarastro. Even at the stage in his career, he is ill at ease with Mozartian style, rather as if Fafner had used the Tarnhelm to appear as the wise priest here. 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 sounds effortful in his duet. Although there are tiny bits of dialogue, most of it is replaced by a narrator whose delivery of the text has the passion of a telephone operator.

COLIN DAVIS, 1984
Margaret Price (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Mikael Melbye (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Colin Davis

Colin Davis’s take on Mozart’s magic Singspiel finds him less animated than in his recording of the Da Ponte operas. He wouldn’t be the first conductor who misses the pantomime element and prefers a certain monumentality that has been added upon Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s original concept. This doesn’t mean that the conductor sees the work from a Romantic perspective. On the contrary, although the orchestral sound is large and the choral numbers tend to the solemn – and tempi are somewhat relaxed – the overall impression is not heavyweight. Moreover, the orchestra on duty is the Staatskapelle Dresden, exceptionally flexible even at its richest, all sections perfectly in balance. Otmar Suitner (SEE BELOW) would find even more clarity with his Dresdners, but Colin Davis offers more variety and character. The Leipzig Radio Chorus’s firm, clear singing adds strength to these performance’s strengths.   At this stage of her career, Margaret Price’s soprano had outgrown the needs of Pamina, but she is takes advantage of the extra richness of tone to invest in the more dramatic moments, such as the scene with the three genii. Moreover, she handles Mozartian lines famously and offers an expressive account of her aria. In her first recording as the Queen of the Night, Luciana Serra sounds twittery if admirably nimble in coloratura. Peter Schreier is no longer fresh-toned as he was for Sawallisch or Suitner (SEE BELOW), but a grating or congested top note or too can be overlooked considering the tenor’s good taste, sense of style and imagination. Michael Melbye sounds unsteady as Papageno, closer to musical theatre than opera. Kurt Moll is again is the reference for Sarastro in the discography. The three ladies are cast from strength – Marie McLaughlin, Anne Murray and Hanna Schwarz. The recorded sound is spacious and clear. The dialogues, absolutely complete,  are delivered by a group of actors, with the exception of Melbye, who reads his own lines.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH, 1983
Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Bayerischen Staatsoperorchester und chor, Wolfgang Sawallisch

August Everding’s 1978 production for the Bavarian State Opera is a walk down memory lane, probably even in its première the audiences saw it as retro, in its cardboard sets and painted backcloths, its complete absence of naturalness and choreographed gestures. Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting too stands here for an old tradition of Mozart performance, here rendered by the hands of an expert. You won’t find  the acme of clarity, rhythmic accuracy nor beauty of orchestral tone, but it never fails to work. The video features almost all the names in leading parts from the première (which had Patricia Wise as Pamina and maybe Siegfried Vogel as Sarastro). Lucia Popp’s first opera recording was Klemperer’s Magic Flute, in which she sings the Queen of the Night (SEE BELOW). She would record the part of Pamina in studio in Munich in 1981 for Haitink. At this point, the voice had acquired the ideal level of richness in every register, and she sings here at once with fullness and purity of tone. Edita Gruberová had climbed up to the high f in her arias with more aplomb in her other recordings, but handles her coloratura with her customary dexterity. This is Francisco Araiza’s best recorded Tamino. He was still at the point of his career in he was developing away from Mozart roles and one can hear that here, and yet he finds no difficulty in this part and is incapable of anything unstylish. My first impression of Wolfgang Brendel’s Papageno was that he was too detached. Now I would say he is one of my favourite exponents of the part. He sings it without cuteness and no intention of sounding funny. Actually, he comes across as rather boorish and cranky – and I have to say I find it refreshing. He handles his dialogues with absolute spontaneity and is probably the most convincing actor in this production. Kurt Moll is in glorious voice and sings with real authority, but a bit coldly.

TON KOOPMAN, 1982
Marjanne Kweksilber (Pamina), Isabelle Poulenard (Queen of the Night), Guy de Mey (Tamino), Michel Verschaeve (Papageno), Harry van der Kamp (Sarastro), Viva la musica Chamber Choir, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman

The recording made in concerts in The Hague conducted by Ton Koopman comes across as a rather experimental affair and its release is probably related to the fact that it was the first Zauberflöte in period instruments on a major label. It is hard to understand why someone would be convinced to trade the Vienna Philharmonic (or for that matter, any other orchestra) for the scrawny, astringent sound of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, at least as it sounded in 1982. The overbright recorded sound makes it even more acidulous and puts an edge to all voices. To make things more difficult, the chorus has white sound, almost amateurish. Koopman leads a cautious performance and seems chiefly concerned in making it work. There are moments when one can see he understands what Mozart expected in terms of perspective and accent, but everything here is sabotaged by the inadequacy of the forces available. Marjanne Kweksilber (Pamina) stands out in this cast. Her soprano has some color and she can shade her tone for expression. Even in those unfavourable circumstances, she manages to find a leeway to phrase as one would except from a Mozartian singer.  Isabelle Poulenard is a light Queen of the Night who tries to go beyond pretty in Der Hölle Rache, but she doesn’t really have it in her. Before he recorded the role of Monostatos for Roger Norrington, Guy de Mey debuted in this discography as Tamino. He is the kind of singer one expects as the Evangelist in a Bach Passion, his tenor clean and lean, rather taut and nasal around the passaggio but his one tonal hue is pleasant. There have been Papagenos cast with singer with background in musical theatre rather than in opera. Michel Verschaeve’s baritone sounds rather like something in between – more like a voice student. Harry van der Kamp’s bass lacks resonance, weight and color for the role of Sarastro, but he sings with a clean line down to the extreme low notes in the part. Dialogue is reduced to its minimum – served with a generous dose of Dutch accent.

JAMES LEVINE, 1982
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. Although Mozart was one of Levine’s specialties, here he doesn’t entirely live up to his reputation. Even if the Vienna Philharmonic is again exemplary in articulation, the conductor requires from them an almost Wagnerian sound that denies everything The Magic Flute is about.   To make things worse, the recording engineer could not make the best of the venue’s difficult acoustics. The results involve a pronounced reverberation around singers and more often than not recessed orchestral sound.

BERNARD HAITINK, 1981
Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Siegfried Jerusalem (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Roland Bracht (Sarastro), Chor und Sinfonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Bernard Haitink

Although the cover art features a production picture of the Bavarian State Opera and these CDs shares singers with the Sawallisch/Everding DVD, this is a studio recording made with the forces of the Bavarian Radio. Bernard Haitink conducts this Singspiel with the approach of a symphonic conductor. The orchestral sound is of surpassing beauty and every little turn of phrase is executed with utmost polish and transparency. The performance, however, is short in dramatic voltage and tends to slow tempi. Even if the orchestra sounds full and rich, it is not weighty and after a while the listener gets used to the lack of animation. Lucia Popp is marginally purer toned live two years later, but offers here an ideal account of Ach, ich fühl’s. Edita Gruberová, on the other hand, is in better voice here, offering athletic, stylish account of both arias of the Queen of the Night. Siegfried Jerusalem is the best Wagnerian Tamino in recordings. Although the tonal quality is not attractive per se, he sings with a clean line and has excellent diction. Without the scenic element, the appeal of Wolfgang Brendel’s no-nonsense Papageno turns basically around the beauty of his voice and the absence of cute comedy effects. Roland Bracht’s grainy, dark bass is not really patrician in tone, but that is all one could find fault in his singing here. Minor roles are not always ideally cast – the First Lady sounds quite shrill, for instance. Dialogues benefit from an almost entirely native German-speaking cast.

JAMES LEVINE, 1980
Ileana Cotrubas (Pamina), Zdizislawa Donat (Queen of the Night), Eric Tappy (Tamino), Christian Boesch (Papageno), Martti Talvela (Sarastro), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

Although the video from Salzburg with the same forces made two years later does not come close to ideal, it is still preferable to the studio recording from Vienna with almost the same cast. James Levine seems to have lost his touch in this repertoire, offering a thick, heavy orchestral sound captured in overly reverberant acoustics, what makes clarity of articulation impossible. The omnipresent halo around singers’ voices make any attempt of intimacy impossible. For once, if you want to hear Levine conduct The Magic Flute, the best idea would be watching the video from New York. Although Ileana Cotrubas is in marginally better voice here than two years later in the Felsenreitschule, it seems she waited too long to record the role of Pamina. Here, her high notes may sound a bit effortful ro just too vibrant for this repertoire, and there are occasional bumps in her legato. Zdizislawa Donat has the habit of pecking at notes and is a bit small-scaled, but hits her high staccato notes without thinking twice. Eric Tappy is a nasal-toned Tamino who sings without much affection and a rather old fashioned sense of ardor. Christian Boesch is again the most spontaneous of Papagenos. This is probably Martti Talvela’s best recorded performance as Sarastro, his voice at its noblest, his low notes firm and resonant and, even if he sounds a bit in a stylistic straitjacket, he comes really close to what one expects in a singer in this repertoire in terms of phrasing. There is a great deal of dialogue here. Lines are spoken as if these singers had all the time of the word to say banal things. A German speaker would find it entertaining to find so many different accents here.

OTMAR SUITNER, 1980
Magdalena Falewicz (Pamina), Isabella Nawe (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Jürgen Freier (Papageno), Siegfried Vogel (Sarastro), Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper, Staatskapelle Berlin, Otmar Suitner

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is probably the opera house in the world with the record of performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, including those in the famous 1994 production by August Everding inspired by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s set designs. Curiously, the only Magic Flute with the Berlin forces in the discography were recorded on tour in Japan in 1980, in Erhard Fischer’s production, which could stand as a picture of the dictionary entry of the word “dreary”. If you are interested in East German stagings, the video from Leipzig is a better choice (SEE BELOW: BAHNER). Before this tour, Otmar Suitner had already recorded Die Zauberflöte for Eurodisc with a distinguished cast in Dresden (SEE BELOW: SUITNER). Unfortunately, the recorded sound lacked naturalness. Therefore, this DVD offers an opportunity to hear in this work in better acoustics, with all the advantages and disadvantages of live performance. This means that this performance, if less polished than the one recorded in Dresden, is more animated and expressive too. The Staatskapelle Berlin has no reason to fear the competition with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Magdalena Falewicz is here marginally less droopy than she was for Bahner (SEE BELOW). However, this is a small advantage, if one takes in considerations that she is often flat here and less pure of tone. After a messy O zittre nicht, the golden-toned Isabella Nawe warms up for a forceful Der Hölle Rache. Peter Schreier’s voice is here very metallic. If you want to see him in video, maybe the Levine video from Salzburg would be a better option. Jürgen Freier’s basic tonal quality has a splash of Hermann Prey, but he is too often throaty and thick-toned to stand the comparison. Siegfried Vogel is a wooly, somewhat grey-toned Sarastro. Considering their Wagnerian credentials, the trio of ladies – Jutta Vulpius, Gisela Schröter and Annelies Burmeister – are surprisingly light-footed.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN, 1979
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 an original but artificial way. Woodwind are clear enough, and some endearing details appear now and then such, as the staccato playing of the double bass in Drei Knaben. The recorded sound is a bit eccentric, with big acoustics to the orchestra and a drier one for the singers, recorded in varied levels. Francisco Araiza seems 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 in her highest notes, but has a good notion of Mozartian style. She could be a bit more smiling here and there too. Karin Ott 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. 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 in the role 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. The part 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 wrong despite all her refinement. Heinz Kruse’s firm voiced characterful Monostatos deserves special mention.

ALAIN LOMBARD, 1978
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.

GERT BAHNER, 1976
Magdalena Falewicz (Pamina), Inge Uibel (Queen of the Night), Horst Gebhardt (Tamino), Dieter Scholz (Papageno), Hermann Christian Polster (Sarastro), Chor der Oper Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Gert Bahner

It is difficult to understand what exactly is the video from Leipzig. First, it seems a performance recorded live at the theatre, but there are some primitive cinematographic special effects and what seems to be really clumsy lip-synch. Nevertheless, this is an interesting memento of operatic staging in the DDR and the only entry of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the discography. Joachim Herz’s production could be used as an example of design in East Germany in the 1970’s. It has some endearingly awkward moments, but some sets are surprisingly effective and beats some productions in this discography in terms of Personenregie (kitsch as the whole concept is). Conductor Gert Bahner could be called a kapellmeister (in the bad sense of the word), but in comparison he comes closer to the required clarity, lightness and expression than many other conductors at the time. It is no coincidence, that it is reminiscent of Otmar Suitner’s recording, but Bahner is less inclined to sentimentalization and has an edge in the flowing tempi in moments like Dies Bildnis and Ach, ich fühl’s. I am undecided about Magdalena Falewicz’s Pamina. At one hand, her soprano is quite saccharine and her phrasing can be droopy. On the other hand, she has a generalized good grasp of Mozart style, sounds girlish and pure-toned and has the right voice for the role. Inge Uibel’s Queen of the Night is similar in color and weight to Sylvia Geszty’s, but less precise in intonation and less agile in coloratura. Horst Gebhard is uneasy in his aria, but otherwise is a very likeable Tamino – he is right in the frontier between a lyric and a heroic tenor and has at once the suppleness of the first group and some of the squillo of the latter. Dieter Scholz is a congenial, velvety-toned Papageno who doesn’t indulge in any exaggeration or mannerism. My first impression of Hermann Christian Polster was that his tone was too clear – almost whitish – for Sarastro, but his low notes are really full and natural and he phrases with dignified poise. The three ladies are very well cast – and so are the three sopranos perfectly childlike as the genii. My experience with the Leipzig Opera Chorus – some decades after this performance – made me think that it was one of the best opera choruses in the world, but here it sounds a bit below standard, especially in comparison with the Leipzig Radio Chorus around the same time. The recorded sound, however, is the drawback of this DVD – it is frustrating to hear such an excellent orchestra recorded in recessed perspective. Also there is some saturation in ensembles.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH, 1972
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 for those who want to hear it with a large orchestra and a stellar cast. Solti’s 1990  on Decca is still a smarter choice in terms of clarity and rhythmic crispness, but Sawallisch has advantages. In its more relaxed pace, the German conductor is able to build the right atmosphere for every scene through sheer understanding of Mozart’s music and dramatic. Solti’s has a clearer Vienna Philharmonic, while the Bavaria State Orchestra’s strings could be less pellucid. In any case, woodwind are prominent as they should. At that stage of her career, Anneliese Rothenberger’s soprano had lost some of its freshness and is sometimes too vibrant for Pamina.  She sounds a bit on the grande dame side, her whole approach a bit old-fashioned compared to the other singers in the cast. Edda Moser’s Queen of the Night is a performance widely acknowledged as the most formidable and forceful in the discography. Moreover, she handles the high staccato a tempo, eschews any cuteness in her coloratura and articulates her words fierily. Peter Schreier sounds a bit mannered in his aria, but is otherwise convincingly young-sounding and expressive. In his last recorded Papageno, Walter Berry could sound too crafty, and yet he is irresistibly funny and has the right voice for the role. Kurt Moll’s first recorded Sarastro is a classic performance, an absolute reference. The Tölzer Boys and the Monostatos (Willi Brokmeier) are excellent, but Olivera Miljakovic sounds kitsch as Papagena and Leonore Kirchstein is below the standard of an otherwise strong team of three ladies (an immediately recognisable Brigitte Fassabender among them). Dialogues are expertly delivered by a cast of native speakers.

GEORG SOLTI, 1969
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 the required clarity is there), 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 gargling 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.

OTMAR SUITNER, 1968
Helen Donath (Pamina), Sylvia Geszty (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Günther Leib (Papageno), Theo Adam (Sarastro), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Otmar Suitner

The shining feature of these CDs is the orchestral tour de force by the Staatskapelle Dresden. No other recording offers playing of comparable beauty of tone, flexibility and richness. Otmar Suitner is not the most animated of conductors, but takes profit of the exceptional forces available to produce a performance of absolute clarity. You’ll find here every note Mozart wrote on the score, not often the intention behind it, as you would with Sawallisch. The Leipzig Radio Chorus is also one of this performance’s assets, but the hall acoustics are a bit too reverberant in choral passages. Actually, singers and orchestra sound as if they had been recorded in different halls too. Helen Donath’s bell-toned Pamina is rather on the soubrettish side and would have benefited from a tempo closer to the score’s andante in Ach, ich fühl’s rather than the funereal pace chosen by the conductor. Sylvia Geszty similarly sounds somewhat twittery as the Queen of the Night and has a curious way of producing her staccato that suggests peals of laughter. Peter Schreier’s first recorded Tamino is less mannered and fresher (if more piercing) of tone than he would sound later. Günther Leib is an entirely artless Papageno, sung in a pop-like, almost tenor-like in tone. Theo Adam’s Sarastro is certainly authoritative and his low notes are surprisingly deep and dark, but the voice lacks stability. The other bass in this recording, Siegfried Vogel (a Sarastro himself) sounds curiously clear-toned in comparison. The boys from the Dresden Kreuzchor (in which both Schreier and Adam sang in their childhood) are excellent. Dialogues are spontaneously delivered by this mostly native-speaker cast.

KARL BÖHM, 1964
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

If you need to see the source where Weber, Beethoven and Wagner found the inspiration for the flexible structures of German Romantic opera and its particular of arioso and recitative, Karl Böhm’s second recording would be probably your recommendation. Aided by the Berliner Philharmoniker’s dense strings, a cast that could be singing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and a really ponderous beat, the atmosphere is really worlds apart from Classicism. If this is somehow revelatory in both finali, especially the Tamino/Sprecher scene or the long sequence of scenes around Tamino and Pamina undergoing the trials by fire and water. Elsewhere, it often lacks forward-movement, transparence and lightness. Even of she sings with good taste and intelligence, Evelyn Lear’s soprano sounds mature for Pamina. In spite of a light voice, Roberta Peters uses its metallic edge to produce the right effect in Der Hölle Rache. She is less at ease in her entrance, aria, though, when the tone sounds less than steady. Fritz Wunderlich’s voice exerts such fascination in its beauty, naturalness and warmth that one is ready to forgive him the excess of ardor that suggests the operetta rather than the singspiel. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s mannerisms here verge on mania, but after a while one feels compelled to follow how he colours 100 interpretative effects per second. This is probably Franz Crass’s best recording of a complete opera. His voice exudes a serene nobility and he phrases with unfailing poise. Minor roles is a collection of Wagnerian names ranging from Hans Hotter (Sprecher) to Sieglinde Wagner (third lady), not to mention that James King and Martti Talvela team as the Armoured Men in the heaviest version of that scene ever heard. Dialogues are well rehearsed and vividly delivered by a cast almost entirely made of native speakers.

OTTO KLEMPERER, 1963
Gundula Janowitz (Pamina), Lucia Popp (Queen of the Night), Nicolai Gedda (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Gottlob Frick (Sarastro), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer

Otto Klemperer’s recording has all the drawbacks of Mozart opera performances of the 1960’s – it has a large orchestra and the tempo is more often than not slower than the music demands. However, give it 10 minutes and you’ll realise that the conductor is able to lighten the sound of his orchestra, his accents are seldom too emphatic and there is even some animation conveyed through accent and phrasing. Moreover, one generally finds the necessary clarity here. Truth be said, more flexible strings would have made all the difference in the world. Dialogues too would have helped to bring more lightness and their absence is regrettable.  The reason why the set will be remembered, however, remains it starry cast. Gundula Janowitz is a lesson in Mozartian singing, even if, in this first recording of hers, she is a bit economical with interpretation. Another newcomer to the recording studios was Lucia Popp, a fresh-toned, musicianly and intelligent Queen 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: trying to sing it as a heroic role. Walter Berry’s Papageno is not as characterful here as he was in Karl Böhm’s first recording (SEE BELOW), 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. Gottlob Frick lacks deep low notes and the nobility of tone for the role of Sarastro. Also, he was clearly not in his best voice. The three boys are sang by women – for unstylish results. The recorded sound could is surprisingly variable and could have a bit more focus, although voices are naturally recorded.

GEORG SZELL, 1959
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, Georg Szell’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1959 shares with Karl Böhm (SEE BELOW) 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.

KARL BÖHM, 1955
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.  The orchestral sound is not heavy, but tempi tend to drag. Although Hilde Güden and Wilma Lipp’s voices are clear and agile, their whole approach is simply old-fashioned  – 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-toned as Sarastro. Only Walter Berry’s rich-toned and spontaneous Papageno provides some pleasure here. The three ladies (with the exception of an immediately recognisable Christa Ludwig) sound kitsch too.

FERENC FRICSAY, 1955
Maria Stader (Pamina), Rita Streich (Queen of the Night), Ernst Haefliger (Tamino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Papageno), Josef Greindl (Sarastro), Berlin RIAS Kammerchor und Symphonie-Orchester, Ferenc Fricsay

A reference in the discography for decades, Ferenc Fricsay’s recording is no longer a prime recommendation, but retains its historic relevance. The Hungarian conductor avoids heaviness and solemnity at all costs and offers a transparent, lean orchestral sound. In spite of its lightness, one cannot help feeling that it lacks some forward movement and that articulation could be crispier too. Also, the mono recorded sound gives singers too much prominence in relation to the orchestra, what impairs any possibility of real clarity. Maria Stader’s soprano has the ideal balance of purity and creaminess of tone, what makes her an exemplary Pamina. She sings sensitively and with unfailing sense of style too. Rita Streich’s bell-toned Queen of the Night never goes beyond prettiness but handles the coloratura and staccato nimbly.  Ernst Haefliger’s dulcet tenor is tailor-made for the role of Tamino. He is too self-indulgent with portamento in his aria, but otherwise sings with unfailing poise. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Papageno is consistent with his performance for Karl Böhm, here fresher of voice, though. On paper, Josef Greindl is ideally cast as Sarastro – his bass is firm and reasonably deep. However, the nasal tonal quality and a perfectible legato stands between him and complete success in the role. The formidable Wagnerian trio of ladies – Marianne Schech, Liselotte Losch and Margarete Klose – sounds like a relic of pre-war recordings, but the three sopranos chosen for the genii do their best to sound boyish. DGG has released it with  dialogues spoken by actors, but there has been reissues without them.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN, 1950
Irmgard Seefried (Pamina), Wilma Lipp (Queen of the Night), Anton Dermota (Tamino), Erich Kunz (Papageno), Ludwig Weber (Sarastro),  Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musifreunde in Wien, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

In this most Viennese of Magic Flutes, Herbert von Karajan leads a performance that sometimes suggests the style of Mozart performances of decades later – precise articulation, lean orchestral sound, intelligent phrasing, fast tempi and the premise that this is a comedy with serious episodes (rather than the opposite). At other times, this can be a self-indulgent performance with surprisingly slow tempi, old-fashioned singing, k.u.K accent and a splash of operetta. These moments generally involve Pamina and Sarastro. Irmgard Seefried’s silky soprano is the voix du rôle, but way she croons through the part makes one think Pamina is in some sort of stupor. In the extreme fast tempi chosen for her arias, Wilma Lipp sounds plugged in compared to her singing five years later for Böhm. It is still a light voice for the part. Anton Dermota’s intent of adhere to classical style rather here verges on fastidiousness. His aria sounds almost abstract with omnipresent mezza voce. Erich Kunz, on the other hand, sounds entirely at ease in his almost chansonnier approach to Papageno. Ludwig Weber’s singing cannot help seeming cumbersome with the abuse of portamento and low notes that sound like yawns, especially in the really slow pace adopted in his arias. The three ladies, led by a silvery Sena Jurinac, are excellent, and the genii can only have been sung by three girls, so childlike are their voices. The chorus is not world-class, but there is an international guest star – George London – as the Sprecher. The mono recorded sound is a bit claustrophobic, with singer very close to the microphone and the orchestra very much in the background.