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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte – opera in two acts K620 (1791) [161:00]
Tamino: Stefan Dahlberg (tenor)
Pamina: Ann Christine Biel (soprano)
Sarastro: Lászlo Polgár (bass)
Queen of the Night: Birgit Louise Frandsen (soprano)
Papageno: Mikael Samuelson (baritone)
Papagena: Birgitta Larsson (soprano)
Speaker: Petteri Salomaa (baritone)
Monostatos: Magnus Khyle (tenor)
Three Ladies: Anita Soldh (soprano), Linnea Sallay (soprano), Inger Blom (mezzo)
Three Boys: Elisabeth Berg (soprano), Ann Christine Larsson (soprano), Anna Tomson (mezzo)
Priest: Torbjorn Lillieqvist (tenor)
Two Armed Men: Thomas Annmo (tenor), Olle Skold (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Drottningholm Court Theatre/Arnold Östman
Stage Director: Goran Järvefelt
TV Director: Thomas Olofsson
rec. Drottningholm Court Theatre, 1989
Sound format: PCM stereo
Subtitle languages: D, F, GB, IT, SP
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0 (all regions)
ARTHAUS 102013 [161:00]

 

 

This 1989 public performance conducted by Arnold Östman has two distinct features: the use of period instruments - the only one on DVD - and the location of the Drottningholm Court Theatre. This 400-seater is much as it was when built in 1766, including the original wooden machinery, wind machine and thunderbox.

The opening credits are accompanied by the orchestra tuning, then a fusillade of knocks calling to order. The advantage of this is that in the overture, for the only time, you see conductor and instrumentalists, mainly youthful players in period costume, all relishing the task. You see Östman’s expressive eye contact, deft attention to the solo for bassoons in the slow introduction. You see his relished pointing of the dancing rhythms of the fast section, articulated with lightness and a sense of fun. From the vibrancy of the opening chords the emphasis is on the positive potential of human aspirations.

The period instruments are more advantageous than the location. It’s intimate and quaint, but the scenery is predominantly sepia-toned, unrelieved by the subdued lighting and conservative costumes. All credit to the television director for letting us see the 18th century machinery in impressively rapid scene change action. But concentration on short and medium range shots blunts the effect of the wing-pieces and scenery’s perspective, given a stage which is 27 feet wide but 57 feet deep.

The man dressed as snake-throttling Tamino is unduly comic but the Three Ladies, elegantly attired, possibly more Offenbach than 18th century, blend cosily both visually and musically. This happy ambience is maintained in all the ensemble pieces, a feeling of oneness of voices and orchestra. The ‘feel good factor’ increases with the appearance of Mikael Samuelson’s Papageno who immediately addresses and cavorts for us, the audience. He remains throughout the outstanding linchpin of this performance, worldly, straightforward, likeable. Even his panpipes have a down-to-earth rasp in comparison with Tamino’s ultra-smooth magic flute.

In ‘Dies Bildnis’ (tr. 7), the aria in which Tamino declares his love at first sight with Pamina’s picture, the orchestra is transparently integrated in the presentation of the emotion. So this carries greater conviction, well matched by Stefan Dahlberg’s unforced lyricism. Birgit Louise Frandsen presents the Queen of the Night as a stately but tormented mother, with a touch of the maniacal. This is mirrored well in the music as the recitative ‘O zittre nicht’ (tr. 9) turns to aria and then coloratura, the latter bright if not entirely even.

A similar transformation within a musical number is apparent in the presentation of ‘Bei Mannern’ (tr. 13), the lovely duet between Pamina (Ann Christine Biel) and Papageno. At first this is straightforwardly direct, but the whole grows more stylish as Pamina’s contribution becomes more elaborate.

The Three Boys aiding Tamino are here Three Girls at some remove from ‘three little maids from school’. The Three Doors to the Temple of Wisdom aren’t very clear in the set. Petteri Salomaa comes out of the only one that could open and is a suitably imposing, if youthful, Speaker. In the recitative between him and Tamino the video director indulges briefly in alternating close-up focus, for me an invasive TV technique. Sometimes there’s an inappropriate reluctance to change the setting, e.g. Tamino plays his flute and charms the wild beasts - here cuddly furry - in front of the Temple of Wisdom where he recently was with the Speaker.

The entrance of Lászlo Polgár’s Sarastro is underwhelming. He strides on quickly and faces the gathered throng with his back to the audience. Pamina’s presentation to him is not well focused vocally, but his response shows fine focus throughout its wide range. In Act 2 his invocation ‘O Isis und Osiris’ (tr. 22) is slightly forced but still showcases his rich yet velvety lower register. The terzetto between Sarastro, Tamino and Pamina follows immediately, so it comes before rather than between the trials. As it’s in the normal place in Östman’s audio recording I conclude the change here is to allow the effect of framing the stage with the two lovers in this preparation scene, even though it’s strictly long before Pamina is given special access by Sarastro to the proceedings of the brotherhood.

The aria of Monostatos (tr. 28) as he contemplates raping Pamina is sung with light grace by Magnus Khyle. He’s somewhat miscast: genuinely black, but not, as he sings, ugly. A less fastidious Pamina would be tempted! The Queen’s aria ‘Der Holle Rache’ (tr.30) is light but incisive in exciting combination with orchestra. Her mania now really flashes forth with her tiara glinting and warpaint shining.

Sarastro’s hymn like air ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ (tr. 32) is dark but lyrical, though a little strained in upper register. Pamina’s tragic aria ‘Ach ich fuls’ (tr. 37) has a stark desolation and poignancy. Papageno’s  happier wish fulfilment, ‘Ein Madchen oder Weibchen’ (tr. 41) is perfectly and sunnily at ease. He deserves his Papagena, Birgitta Larsson bright as a button and much more mischievous. Yet that brightness is also present when Pamina and Tamino travel into the final trials together. In the mean time the Armed Men (tr. 45) have provided an intense and sonorous chant whose rarefied quality - the tenor and bass remaining an octave apart - is well caught over contrastingly objective orchestral elaboration.

Östman’s performances contain a substantial amount of dialogue. With reference to the Barenreiter New Mozart Edition I’d estimate about two-thirds of the complete dialogue. This fills out the characters more. In particular it makes Sarastro’s rationality and serious intentions more admirable and Papageno more comic, yet also representative of the ordinary person’s (our) response.

Östman’s Mozart may be familiar through his audio recordings. The Die Zauberflote (Decca 4700562) was made in 1992, 3 years after this stage production, with the same chorus and orchestra but a cast of international star soloists. There are gains and losses. To give one example, Barbara Bonney in Pamina’s ‘Ach ich fuhl’s’ is touching in its pure, gentle beauty yet a little remote, rather like a china figure. Overall the performances are more stylish, the singing more beautiful, the orchestral detail and relationship to the vocal lines more telling, partly owing to the lack of visual information. But there’s less spontaneity and – sometimes - relaxation, a more studied feel, so less impact in terms of emotions and experience. The dialogue sounds as it is, read rather than lived.

How does this Östman DVD compare with the mainstream? The latest example is the 2003 Covent Garden production conducted by Colin Davis (BBC Opus Arte OA 0885D). This is visually more spectacular, with livelier costumes, lighting, mist effects and advantage taken of a more spacious setting as well as the bonuses of widescreen presentation and surround sound. But with I’d guess about half of the complete dialogue the characterization is more cryptic. The modern instruments are a little smoother, the sound more dense, the playing a touch more measured, the humour more pointed.

Vocally honours are about even. Dorothea Roschmann is outstanding, with wonderful vocal colouration which brings Pamina vividly to life. Simon Keenlyside, also excellent, brings out the little boy lost, forlorn aspects of Papageno. He reminded me of Stan Laurel. We sympathize rather than - as with Samuelson - identify with him. This places more weight on Papageno’s philosophic attributes but diminishes the comedy otherwise little present in this work. Adrian Thompson is a suitably nastier Monostatos, like a bloated slug, but isn’t black. The Three Boys are genuinely such: preferable because of the presentation of innocence thereby and clarification of Sarastro’s all male domain. The Three Ladies are more like harridans, their Queen (Diana Damrau) the most formidable of all. But both Tamino (Will Hartmann) and Sarastro (Franz-Josef Selig) over-project at times and are therefore less convincing than Dahlberg and Polgár.

To sum up, the strengths of this Östman DVD are its teamwork, clarity, integration and vivacity, notably in the relationship between voices and orchestra, and the presentation of the ensemble and chorus singing. This strong sense of teamwork may well partly be due to all the soloists being Scandinavian except the Hungarian Sarastro, but he is fittingly a character set apart, the mystery man. On the whole the solo singing, acting and stage movement are effective. The chief weakness is the relative dowdiness of the scenery and costumes. This is most likely to be felt, however, if you are coming to this opera for the first time. The performance itself has an atmosphere, a spirit of enquiry and adventure, which draws you in and makes you want to go on experiencing it.

Michael Greenhalgh

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