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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.