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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
The Magic Flute - Singspiel in two acts
Tamino, a Javanese Prince ... Barry Banks (ten)
Queen of the Night ... Elizabeth Vidal (sop)
Pamina, her daughter ... Rebecca Evans (sop)
Three Ladies, attendants to the Queen: First Lady ... Majella Cullagh (sop); Second Lady ... Sarah Fox (sop); Third Lady ... Diana Montague (mezzo)
Papageno, a bird catcher ... Simon Keenlyside (bar)
Papagena ... Lesley Garrett (sop)
Sarastro, Priest of the Sun ... John Tomlinson (bass)
Monostatos, a Moor, overseer at the temple ... John Graham-Hall (tenor)
Speaker, an elderly priest ... Christopher Purves (bass)
With Peter Bronder, Debbie Tyfield, Nazan Fikret and Victoria Jones
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded at Blackheath Halls, London; 4-10 November 2004
CHANDOS CHAN 3121(2) [62.23 + 73.24]


Imagination can run riot with a CD recording of an opera; as opposed to DVD. This is particularly true of The Magic Flute with some dozen sets of scenery, trap doors, trials of fire and water, slithery serpents and airborne guiding spirits. The imagination is wonderful for this, unconstrained by physical theatrical problems or even a budget.

Of course, Schikaneder included all those special effects for the very good reason that his ‘rackety old theatre’ - so described by Rodney Milnes in a delightful overview of the opera and its history in the accompanying booklet - had quite remarkable stage machinery. The obverse of the CD coin is that you miss ‘theatrical moments’. Simon Keenlyside sings Papageno here; he performed that same role with great physical verve in the recent Covent Garden production. Rebecca Evans (Pamina), John Graham-Hall (Monostatos) and Sir Charles Mackerras were on duty in that production also. To my mind Chandos have captured four of the top six from that production, (no, dear Editor, I decline to name my other two).

Sir Charles Mackerras is on great form bringing out one of the best orchestral performances to be heard: now driving forward, now reining back, laying a simple or complicated back-drop but never drowning the voices. With some thought-provoking tempi, here is a superbly drilled orchestra under the baton of a true maestro.

The orchestra must be responsive to all the characters, each of whom was regarded by Mozart as crucial to the weave of the music; this is an opera without leading role(s). Papageno excepted (well, Schikaneder did write the role for himself) no character has more than two arias or songs. Indeed the argument that this is a play with songs has always had its adherents. But as with many recent productions much of the dialogue is omitted. Here chunks have had to go to achieve a 2 CD set that concentrates on the music but retains sufficient dialogue to keep the plot bubbling along. Which is how Keenlyside treats his Papageno: he has that wonderful vocal facility to create an image of a simple direct character. He controls his superb baritone to keep it within the modest range of colours that fit the role: and, with Rebecca Evans, he provides a perfect partner for their duets. Evans also gives an excellent performance: from her floated high notes left hanging in the air to smooth almost mezzo cream low: including the occasional very demanding leap between the two. Here is believable role development via vocal characterisation.

Conversely, my opinion of Tamino, is that Mozart and Schikaneder do not allow him to develop greatly. He begins with bow but arrowless, fainting in the path of a serpent and ends led by Pamina through the trials. He accepts what he sees, or is told, at face value. Barry Banks makes the role seem easy with great lyricism in the portrait aria. His distinctive timbre contributes greatly to the ensembles and he is the perfect, steady leader for the fearful, occasionally disobedient and petulant Papageno.

Whilst I applaud the translation by Jeremy Sams, I do prefer my Queen of the Night to start out as the ‘starry’ Queen if only to contrast with the ‘night’ Queen of Act 2. Elizabeth Vidal delivers the Queen’s aria in Act 1 with splendid self-pitying stress. She manages to retain the persuasive tone in the coloratura section for her encouragement of Tamino, instead of spilling over into threatening mode that she reserves for Act 2. I thought that just occasionally her insistent complete word enunciation caused her to become very slightly squally. However when in the stratosphere words of course disappear and there is a more comfortable sound of note-hitting seismic shifts.

The three ladies are splendid – perhaps even over-cast for these roles. Here are servants of the Queen who start as they mean to go on. Vocally strong, commanding of Papageno and supportive of their Queen. The quintet with Banks and Keenlyside is particularly enjoyable for the polish of the vocal balance.

John Tomlinson’s Sarastro is full of gravitas. Occasionally his vibrato becomes a little close to a wobble but that aside here is a superbly dark voice with deep colouring and low notes which do not evaporate. John Graham-Hall’s Monostatos is a gently vengeful Moor: his aria “All the world ... ” moves from pathos to a determination for his assault on Pamina that he manages to convey is bound to fail. A villain who ‘never quite made it’, portrayed with almost charm.

Christopher Purves does not merely double up: he ‘trebles up’. The higher lying vocal range of the Speaker is despatched with magisterial aplomb; then he plainly relishes the role of the First Priest. And with Peter Bronder as the two Armed Men there is a powerful delivery of the ‘Bach’ cantata or Lutheran chorale. I also enjoyed their almost frivolous trio with Banks with whom their voices blended excellently.

The three ‘boys’ also achieve a vocal dovetailing. These guides, advisers and savers from suicide, produce a very comforting and comfortable sound – I would certainly entrust myself to them.

Papagena is too evidently Lesley Garrett. Amusing as she is with her northern accented ‘old woman’, she does not sound ‘old’ – indeed far too hale and hearty. As you would expect, this is fine when revealed as Papagena, bright as a button and vocally entertaining.

The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir is on excellent form. They produce a deeply resonant sound both as Priests and as Chorus. And let me not forget some ‘magical’ flute and glockenspiel playing by Celia Chambers and Gareth Hancock respectively.

So here is a fine CD set. With virtually every word enunciated perfectly, you can dispense with the accompanying libretto and just sit back and enjoy another excellent Opera in English.

Robert McKechnie




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