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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Die Zauberflöte (1791)
Hans Sotin (bass) – Sarastro; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Tamino; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) – Speaker; Kurt Marschner (tenor) – First Priest; Herbert Flirther (baritone) – Second Priest; Cristina Deutekom (soprano) – Queen of the Night; Edith Mathis (soprano) – Pamina; Leonore Kirschstein (soprano) – First Lady; Paula Page (mezzo) – Sedond Lady; Cvetka Ahlin (contralto) – Third Lady; William Workman (baritone) – Papageno; Carol Malone (soprano) – Papagena; Franz Grundheber (baritone) – Monostatos; Kurt Moll (bass) and Helmut Melchert (tenor) – Two Men in Armour; Bernd Rüter, Klaus Reimers, Axel Pätz – Three Boys
Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra/Horst Stein;
Direction: Peter Ustinov; Set Design: Jean-Denis Malclès; Directed for TV by Joachim Hess;
Produced by Polyphon Film- und Fernsehgesellschaft for NDR, 1971;
Sound Format: Mono; Picture Format: 4:3, Colour
ARTHAUS 101265 [156:00]
 


During his regime at the Hamburg State Opera, Rolf Liebermann brought the house to a leading position in European opera life, creating many interesting productions, engaging leading singers and conductors. He also took the initiative to produce no less than thirteen opera films, based on productions in the house but filmed in studio. These are valuable documents of a legendary era and besides preserving the productions for posterity – warts and all – they are also important for the many outstanding singers taking part. Technically they are a bit dated: the sound is in mono and fairly primitive by today’s standards, there is a certain strident quality to the orchestra, but they are fully listenable. The technique of filming has made considerable advances and the sets can seem belonging to bygone days – which they of course are. However, just as we don’t dismiss Gone With the Wind or Casablanca because they are not up to modern technical standards or the aesthetics or acting can feel dated, we shouldn’t write off these opera films. The present Zauberflöte from 1971, and a Nozze di Figaro from four years earlier (see review), have much to offer, both for the staging and the singing.
 
During the overture the preliminary credits are shown on a black screen with a still of the magic flute in the background, static and not very inspiring. The sets are stylised but in the main realistic, albeit in a fairy-tale manner, the costumes are a mix: Sarastro and the priests in long white timeless kaftans, Monostatos and his men black-faced and in fanciful costumes, Pamina wears a simple white dress, modern in the late 1960s. Tamino has a vaguely Mediaeval red suit with chest and shoulders covered by a kind of armour and Papageno and Papagena are colourfully feathered.
 
The fairy-tale elements of the story are further enhanced by the “realistic” dragons in the opening scene – yes, Ustinov has engaged two, where most directors content themselves with one; the libretto of course says “Schlange” (snake). There are numerous fanciful animals in the act 1 finale when Tamino plays his flute and the three boys arrive by air balloon, driven by two small propellers. Incidentally it is interesting to compare this production with Ingmar Bergman’s marginally later film, where there is an almost identical balloon. The libretto says in the second act that they come in “einem mit Rosen bedeckten Flugwerk” (a flying apparatus covered with roses) but I wonder if it is only coincidental. There are some other details too that lead me to think that Bergman knew the Ustinov production. Both versions have their own ingenious features; the interplay between the recalcitrant Papageno and the Second Priest gradually develops into a farce, where the priest tries to get some of Papageno’s wine. When Papageno sings his second act aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, he “accompanies” the glockenspiel, playing with knife and fork on glasses and bowls.
 
A fairy-tale it is, to some extent at least, and as such it deals with the fight between Good and Evil. The problem with Die Zauberflöte is that it is not completely clear who is good and who is bad, or rather, that the perspective changes. The three ladies are dressed in traditional black but with one black hand and one red, to indicate some ambiguity, but they belong to The Queen of the Night, as does Monostatos and his gang. But the QotN first stands out as the wronged and not until we meet the mysterious Speaker, dressed in white, in that musically remarkable scene where it gradually dawns upon Tamino that not everything is as he had believed. From there the story takes a new direction. The logic and the underlying meaning of this play have been debated for 200 years but with hindsight one could almost believe Schikaneder to be the first fantasy writer. One thing there is no doubt about: the music is absolutely marvellous and redeems obscurity and lack of logic.
 
And musically this performance has many attractive features. Horst Stein’s conducting is straightforward and well paced. There is some scrappy string playing but in general there are no complaints, apart from the recording which places the orchestra in an unfavourable light. The voices are quite closely miked and we had some argument whether it was singback or not. There were some signs hinting at a slight lack of synchronization, but in the end we decided that it was the real sound we saw and heard.
 
The soloists comprise an impressive line-up of great names. Starting in the lowest department the young Hans Sotin is a human Sarastro, singing with lyrical beauty and great warmth. There is little room for expressive acting in this part but Sotin radiates nobility. In the small but important role of the Speaker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau creates a dignified but at the same time open-minded and inquisitive character. He does this in his usual detailed Lieder singer manner, more restrained than many and with small almost unnoticeable changes in facial expression. The otherwise little known William Workman is a splendid actor, lively, with an expressive face and he sings with a natural, earthbound elegance. He both looks and sounds the child of nature that Papageno certainly is. For a change Monostatos is sung by a baritone, the young Franz Grundheber, who makes a vivid portrait of the Moor. Nicolai Gedda’s Tamino is well-known, not least from the complete recording with Klemperer. There he was bereft of the spoken dialogue, which he delivers with both nobility and warmth. Often Tamino is sung by a purely lyrical tenor with good effect but a more powerful voice adds heroic status to the role and he sings the part gloriously. He is more restrained as an actor, though. Edith Mathis was one of the finest Mozart sopranos back in the 1960s and 1970s. She is a lovely, innocent-looking Pamina, singing with the utmost beauty. From a Queen of the Night is required a formidable voice with easy high notes and coloratura agility. Besides that it is enough to look mean. Cristina Deutekom is good at that and her coloratura is among the most precise I have heard with pearls of crystal streaming out of her throat but her mid-register is less attractive. Carole Malone manages to impersonate both the ugliest old woman and the cutest Papagena one can imagine and her bird imitation when she finally throws off her disguise is priceless. The three ladies act well and it is nice to see Helmut Melchert and the young Kurt Moll as the two men in armour.
 
The quality of the pictures is better than the sound and we had a pleasant evening in front of the telly. As a film the Bergman production is undoubtedly better but the singing is not on the same level as on this issue – only Håkan Hagegård’s Papageno and Erik Saedén’s Speaker are in the same league. You may need some indulgence as far as the technical side is concerned but this is made up for by the singing.
 
Göran Forsling
 

 



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