This Karajan recording of the Mozart’s fantasy opera The Magic Flute is certainly one of the finest versions in my collection. No stranger to The Magic Flute, Karajan made his first recording of it with the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna with mono sound in 1950 for Columbia/EMI. Karajan made the present reissued recording some thirty years later in the Philharmonie, Berlin. I have seen claims that this was the first digital opera recording and one of Deutsche Grammophon’s very first digital recordings.
The Berlin Philharmonic has a fine tradition of recordings of The Magic Flute right from the first complete recording. Thomas Beecham’s celebrated and sparkling version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a studio recording taken down at the Beethovensaal in Berlin principally in November 1937 and again in February/March 1938. Producer Walter Legge engaged a few principals from the Berlin State Opera Orchestra to augment the players of the Berlin Philharmonic. Beecham’s reissued and re-mastered double set on Nimbus Prima Voce NI 7827/8 is well worth obtaining but has no libretto. For a seventy year old mono recording the re-mastered sound is quite remarkable.
I also have a fondness for the excellent double set that Karl Böhm recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and the RIAS-Kammerchor in the Jesus Christ Church, Berlin in June 1964. The starry cast includes the much missed Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno and Roberta Peters as The Queen of the Night. I have the analogue set re-mastered with original-image bit-processing technology and full texts with English translations on Deutsche Grammophon 449 749-2.
Containing a Masonic subplot Mozart’s The Magic Flute described as, “An exotic fairy tale with mystical elements” (The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, ed. Amanda Holden, 2005) is one of my favourite operas. I have been fortunate to have seen several productions. In September 2009 I attended director Günter Krämer’s splendid contemporary staging at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Last May I attended another excellent production directed by Rosamund Gilmore at the glorious Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich.
Mozart’s composition of The Magic Flute in 1791 partially overlapped with his writing of the Requiem a score he never lived to complete. The libretto was provided by Emanuel Schikaneder assisted by Karl Ludwig Giesecke. For this 1980 Karajan recording the spoken German recitative was arranged and directed by Will Quadflieg.
A couple of months before his death Mozart was to conduct the opera’s première in September 1791 at the Theatre auf der Wieden, Vienna. Described as, “An exotic fairy tale with mystical elements” (The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, ed. Amanda Holden) the opera was an immediate success. It is testament to Mozart’s capacity that at a time close towards the end of his life, full of torment by failing physical and mental health, and mounting debts that he could write music of such vital energy, japery and fantasy. The success was such that following its première the opera was staged over 230 times in its first ten years at impresario Emanuel Schikaneder’s Theatre auf der Wieden.
Things get off to flying start with the BPO providing a stirring rendition of the Overture; bursting with vigour and highly attractive. The March of the Priests that commences the second act continues the same exalted standard. Exercising great care and attention Karajan avoids any temptation to take the score too fast yet keeping a strong rhythmic pulse throughout.
With the exception of José van Dam and Edith Mathis, Karajan chose a relatively unknown cast of mainly younger soloists. The most impressive of all is José van Dam a rock like bass-baritone as Sarastro. Commanding and expressive, van Dam’s splendid voice is a true highlight. He delivers Sarastro’s act two air with chorus, O Isis und Osiris (Oh Isis and Osiris) a prayer to the Gods in the temple with a wonderfully rich and mellow timbre which yet conveys suitable menace. I was impressed by his outstanding breath control and clear diction during the extended vocal line. From the second act Sarastro’s air In diesen heil'gen Hallen (Within this holy place revenge is unknown) is sung with calm assurance.
Tenor Francisco Araiza as the love-struck Tamino gives a bright and impressive performance of Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is captivating and beautiful). I was also moved by Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton (Now I see your powerful magic spell) where a joyous Tamino offers his gratitude to the Gods. With compelling masculinity Araiza sings his tender love song for Pamina with conviction and splendid enunciation.
The weakest link in the cast is baritone Gottfried Hornik as the ridiculous feather-suited, bird-catcher Papageno. In the airs Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja (My profession is bird catching, you know) and Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (I’d like a young wife to comfort me) Hornik’s serviceable performance is heavy and lacking in fluidity. There’s little presence in his voice and variable diction. It feels as if Hornik is struggling to keep up and is somewhat dragged along by Karajan. I really enjoyed the glorious flute playing that accompanies Papageno.
Soprano Karin Ott sounds well cast as the imposing Queen of the Night. In her aria O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn! (Don’t be afraid, dear son) she shows little sense of strain. Her bottom to mid-range has an impressive, smooth and creamy timbre. Justly celebrated, the Queen of the Night’s act two aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (My heart is afire with hellish vengeance) known as the ‘Vengeance aria’ makes considerable coloratura demands. Here the impressive Ott provides a scorching and exciting attack; if a touch piercing at the top. I have heard more convincing coloraturas but to be fair she does a fine job here.
I especially enjoyed the act two air Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden (Everyone feels the joys of love) when Monostatos creeps into the garden and lovingly gazes upon Pamina who is asleep in a moonlit arbour. Heinz Kruse proves a flexible and expressive tenor with a most attractive and smooth timbre.
The Three Ladies, servants to the Queen of the Night played by Karajan favourite soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow and mezzo-sopranos Agnes Baltsa and Hanna Schwarz provide compelling performances. I found their voices blended splendidly.
Soprano Edith Mathis at over 40 years old would perhaps seem a touch too old for the role of the girl Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. Not so; in fact she is light and girlish with a fluid tone that is smooth as velvet. With its lyrical vocal line probably the most beautiful air in all the opera is Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel that it has vanished). In an affecting performance the heartbroken Pamina, yearning for Tamino, is tenderly portrayed by Edith Mathis. Impressively in tune Mathis is extremely comfortable in her mid-range with a glorious top register reached so effortlessly.
A much celebrated set-piece of the fantasy opera is Pamina and Papageno’s first act duet Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen (The gentle love of man and women) singing of the bliss and selflessness of the unison of two lovers. The lovely-toned soprano Edith Mathis as Pamina rather outshines disappointing baritone Gottfried Hornik as a very downtrodden Papageno. The much loved duet ‘Pa-pa-geno! Pa-pa-pagena!’ between the reunited Papageno and Papagena sung by Janet Perry comes across reasonably well without being outstanding. But what a glorious melody and such memorable music.
The act two trio between Pamina, Sarastro and Tamino Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn? (My love when we part, will I not see you again?) contains much splendid music as well as wonderful drama. Sung by Mathis; van Dam and Araiza, this is a splendid example of excellent voices that are exceptionally well contrasted.
I remain greatly impressed with this reissued set. Sadly the prestigious yellow label have let themselves down by not providing a libretto. However, there is a concise and well written synopsis. The engineers at the Philharmonie have done a superb job with clear and well balanced sound.