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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte K 620 - Opera in two acts (1791)
Pamina, Dorothea Röschmann (sop); Tamino, Christoph Strehl (ten); Papageno, Hanno Müller- Brachmann (bar); Sarastro, René Pape (bass); Queen of the night, Erika Miklósa (sop); Papagena, Julia Kleiter (sop); Speaker, Georg Zeppenfeld (bar); Monostatos, Kurt Azesberger (ten)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Teatro Communale, Modena, Italy, September 2005
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5789 GH2 [77.25 + 71.25]
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With the death of the enlightened Emperor Joseph II, who had commissioned Cosi fan tutte and is said to have suggested its plot, Mozartís source of operatic patronage appeared to have dried up. Given his parlous financial state he would doubtless have welcomed Emanuel Schikanederís suggestion that Mozart compose a magic opera for his Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. The two had resumed friendship when Schikaneder returned to Vienna in 1789. They shared the fellowship of the same Masonic Lodge. The Theater auf der Wieden was a popular theatre holding around one thousand and mounted productions featuring elaborate machinery, live animals, spectacular lighting and scenic effects. These were interspersed with topical jokes, in the local patois, and songs to suit an unsophisticated audience.

Various sources have been suggested for the basis of Schikanederís libretto with much discussion of the relationship of the trials undergone by Tamino and Pamina, and the triumph of good over evil, to the Masonic background of composer and librettist. The Masonic influence is also implied by the frequency the number three occurs in the opera as it is said that this number is significant in Freemasonry. Certainly the number occurs with the Three Ladies, Boys, and Doors as well as in the musical structure. What really destroys this argument for the work being a Masonic allegory is that there are only two trials, of fire and water. If there were any Masonic allusions it would be the three steps and trials an initiate has to take and undergo to raise to the sublime degree of Master Mason.

Die Zauberflöte is surely in the tradition of the Theater auf der Wieden where it was premiered on 30 September 1791 as a popular entertainment with as much spectacle as possible. A performance such as that by Colin Davis (Philips), which seeks a to confer patina of extra gravitas via slow tempi and heavy orchestral colouring, misses the point. At the other end of the scale is the fleet conducting of Mackerras with a smaller chamber orchestra (Telarc, recorded 1992 review). Abbadoís speeds on this recording are very similar to those of Mackerras who also seeks to emulate the practice of Mozartís time: decoration of the vocal line with appoggiaturas and ornaments. In the middle road of tempi between the turgidity of Davis and the fleetness here, come Haitink (EMI, recorded 1981) and Marriner (Philips, recorded 1989). Whilst Haitink abbreviates the extensive dialogue of the original, he does so to a lesser degree than Marriner and Abbado, who as a consequence fit the opera on two CDs and without disturbance to the flow and continuity of the opera.

It is surprising that Abbado has returned to opera with Mozart after his life-threatening illness and to a work he had not previously conducted. A consummate Verdi and Rossini conductor in the theatre and on record, I have not found his previous sorties into Mozart particularly appealing or revealing. This recording derives from a series of live performances at the Teatro Communale, Modena. This fact is not clearly stated and I did not realise it was so until the applause at the end. What is stated is that the recording was made with a young cast in conjunction with performances in Italy and Germany. I also believe that Abbado will conduct performances at the 2006 Edinburgh International festival. The casts for these various performances have involved changes of personnel. I do not know to what extent DG chose the performances at Modena for the recording because of the presence of two well-known singers in the cast, Dorothea Röschmann as Pamina and René Pape as Sarastro. Certainly these two sing their roles with distinction. Papeís sonorous tones and expressive phrasing are heard to good effect in his two solos, particularly In diesen heilígen Hallen (CD 2 tr.6). As Pamina, Dorothea Röschmann benefits from Abbadoís fleetness in Ach, ich fühlís (CD 2 tr. 10). She has a pleasing lightness of tone without erasing memories of Lucia Popp for Haitink or Kiri Te Kanawa for Marriner. I wonder if she could have sustained the lovely legato and tonal richness they exhibit at the slower speeds adopted by their conductors?

Of the other soloists, all previously unknown to me, I was particularly impressed by the vocal timbre and expressive characterisation of Christoph Strehl as Tamino. He has something of the tonal warmth of Stuart Burrows, on Soltiís first recording, with the ease and fluency in the German of Siegfried Jerusalem for Haitink. If I dare mention the name, he reminds me of the young Fritz Wunderlich. The German lyric tenor fach badly needs a singer of that quality. Strehlís legato, diction and caressing of the phrase are heard to good effect in Die Bildnis (CD 1 tr. 5) and his strength of voice in the act one finale (CD 1 trs. 13-16). If not quite on that level the Papageno of Hanno Müller-Brachmann is more than satisfactory. He characterises the role well in the various situations in which the bird-catcher finds himself. Although his diction is good he does force his voice a shade too much in the dialogue. Not as vocally satisfying is Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night. Once she gets to the stratospheric heights of Der Hölle Rache (CD 2 tr. 4) she is fine and her coloratura is well articulated. Lower down the scale her middle voice is less steady and she is variable in pitch.

At the end of the day this is Abbadoís Die Zauberflöte and his presence on the podium is the justification for another recording of the opera. Ones reactions will depend on feelings about his conducting and whether for you he brings any particular and distinctive illumination to the work, whether it be a glorified pantomime or Masonic allegory. Personally, I find no particular magic that would make me want to displace my favourite performance, that by Haitink, the wobbly Sarastro apart, from my shelves. Also the recording, whilst well balanced and clear, lacks something of the ambience and atmosphere of the best studio versions. Whilst it is good to hear Abbado back conducting opera, and to hear a new generation of German-speaking singers, that combination is not enough for me to rank this performance at the top of a very competitive list.

Robert J Farr


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