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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte: The Magic Flute, K620 (1791)
Tamino - Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor)
Pamina - Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Queen of the Night - Beverley Hoch (soprano)
Sarastro - Cornelius Hauptmann (bass)
Papageno - Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
Papagena - Catherine Pierard (soprano)
Monostatus - Guy de Mey (tenor)
Speaker - Olaf Bär (bass-baritone)
Three Boys - Tessa Bonner, Evelyn Tubb and Caroline Trevor (sopranos)
Three Ladies - Nancy Argenta, Eirian James and Catherine Denley (sopranos)
Two Armed Men - Rufus Müller (tenor) and Richard Wistreich (bass)
Schütz Choir of London
London Classical Players/Roger Norrington
Recorded in Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, December 1990
VIRGIN VERITAS 4-82073-2 [72:39 + 66:06]

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Die Zauberflöte is a many-wondered thing. It can be appreciated on almost any plane; as a daft farce, or a silly pantomime or as a tale of life and love, culminating in an inspiring ceremony celebrating the virtues of maturity and wisdom. For some it is as profound an exploration of the forces of good and evil as anything in music or art. After all that, you may find its dramatic oddities such that it's best treated simply as a concert-reservoir - full to overflowing - of some of the loveliest - and some of the most stirring - music ever penned!

Norrington's 1990 recording makes an attractive investment, and has no major flaws. That's unusual in this opera of all operas: after all, it demands a great deal of a great many. Rolfe-Johnson sings Tamino's beautiful music with a very appropriate earnestness. Dawn Upshaw is most engaging as Pamina, and sings the impossibly taxing 'Ach ich fühls' with a rare combination of composure and accuracy. Andreas Schmidt is tremendous fun as Papageno, as well as being vocally secure: Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena, in the shape of the delightfully playful Catherine Pierard, is his perfect partner. Cornelius Hauptmann's Sarastro is heartfelt, but a trifle lightweight in tone for such a heavyweight role. For me, Beverley Hoch perfectly exemplifies the problem of casting the Queen of the Night: wonderfully precise and agile coloratura, but her tone disappointingly undernourished in the normal soprano pitch range. The minor roles, including the threesomes, are uniformly excellent.

Norrington's conducting is characteristic of much that he's committed to disc. Musically shaped, with a keen ear for detail, and muscular: but rather fast throughout, occasionally to the point of being unsympathetic, even breathless - I doubt that his cast was universally happy with all of these tempi. As ever, the London Classical Players are superb, and the Schütz Choir's singing (perfectly balanced, with a strong bass line, as befits such noble choral writing) is everything one could want.

The ample (too ample?) dialogue was prepared by Peter Branscombe, and is full of thunderous sound effects. It's very well done, but I must say I find it all rather tiresome, partly because my German's not good enough to keep pace with it, but partly also because constant interruptions to Mozart's inspired music are trying. It's not just the trivia which irritates: it's the way the brakes are repeatedly applied to an already-flawed drama. But Mozart planned it that way - or accepted that he had to go with Schikaneder's specifications - so I must be patient! Happily, it's all separately indexed, so (with a few minutes' programming) can easily be edited out. Meanwhile, the new Mackerras-Chandos recording, which will offer a very different experience for us English speakers, is eagerly anticipated!

The leaflet comprises a very full synopsis which, regrettably, doesn't refer to track numbers. So if you don't know the opera, you need to be able to concentrate pretty hard to put it to best use. No notes on its history, by the way, or the performance: and no libretto.

I'm not sure why Act 2 has to start on the first CD, and for everything to be unnecessarily interrupted after 'O Isis und Osiris'. Why not Act 1 on CD1, and Act 2 complete on CD2?

This Magic Flute is notably well-balanced, both as a performance and as a recording. You may find, as I do, that its impact is lessened by Norrington's impatient pacing, and by the sheer quantity of dialogue: but in every other respect, it's as good as any.

Peter J Lawson

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