Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782)
Konstanze - Anneliese Rothenberger
Belmonte - Nicolai Gedda
Blonde - Lucia Popp
Pedrillo - Gerhard Unger
Osmin - Gottlob Frick
Bassa Selim - Leopold Rudolf
Chorus of Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker/Josef Krips
rec. 7-15 February 1966, Theatre an der Wien. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6407342 [36.58 + 77.19]

Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail is an opera which has done well on record. There is a depth of talent on the various recordings to cater for most tastes. The older recordings tend to have more cuts than the recent versions which will bother some listeners more than others. Not being a German speaker I find that the older sets – the 1956 Beecham, for instance - include a satisfying amount of dialogue to keep the story clear but not enough to be a chore. Quite often the singing and lower prices may justify buying the older sets despite their textual limitations. Alternatively you may think 'I'm only going to have one copy of this opera I better make it complete/in digital sound'. Either way we benefit from a good variety of recordings for an opera which does not enjoy the popularity of Mozart's Italian operas - at least outside the Germany-speaking world. A factor in fewer producing this opera must be the difficulty of the title roles.

This mid-price recording from 1966 has a strong cast. The closest competition historically were Thomas Beecham's recording and the DG set conducted by Eugen Jochum. These sets are now available on CD at mid-price or even budget price. The sopranos selected by Krips, Beecham or Jochum are among the best on record; for that quality today you may look to Gruberova or Studer. However, the virtue of the vintage sets is the way they feel like cohesive performances by singers used to singing with each other. The Konstanzes may not be the best on record but they are impressive and don't ‘let the side down’- they still give good performances.

Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte is as stylish as you would expect with his voice sounding flexible and clear without wear or tear even though this recording dates from a period where he was experimenting with heavy roles such as Lohengrin. Remembering that Arnold in William Tell was not far off nor Raoul in Les Huguenots it shows the skill Gedda had in managing his voice intelligently. Recorded in 'close-up' Gedda's voice had lost some of the softness which characterized his earlier 1950s work. I suppose this is inevitable but all the same I feel that if the record was made a little earlier we would have reaped the rewards. Gedda gets off to a skilful start with ''Hier soll ich dich denn sehen'' [CD1, Track 2] even though the higher reaches of this aria are a little strained. I think he was not in best voice for this recording. Nevertheless his exchanges with Gottlob Frick (Osmin) in Act One are nice and lively if rather self-conscious in front of the microphones.

All the same, the result is more dramatic than Leopold Simoneau's performance for Beecham which is sweetly sung if a trifle bland. Overall, however, neither tenor can really compete with the wonderful Fritz Wunderlich for Jochum who is a marvel - sweet, Italianate tone used with intelligence and charm. Gedda's contemporary recording of Don Giovanni does not sound so hard-toned with Klemperer and I believe he is on better form for the slightly later recording (in English) with Menuhin. I notice this throughout - for instance his part in the ensemble ''Ach, Belmonte, ach mein Leben!' [Track 13 CD2]. The difference for me is that Wunderlich's singing would stand up to comparison with some of the best solo recordings available on 45 or download but the same cannot quite be said of Gedda here.

The role of Konstanze is sung by a variety of sopranos from those with unusually flexible spinto voices – quite dark voices with reserves of power but also at times lyrical – to outright coloratura singers. The coloraturas tend to revel in the vocal gymnastics of the part but lack spinto drama. Rothenberger's voice is light and despite the heavier fare in her repertoire (Madama Butterfly) she is properly a coloratura soprano. Although the voice has some vibrancy, the result is less dramatic than many other versions on record and can sound rather pallid. I find she is a little over-parted and cannot rival Lois Marshall (Beecham, 1956) who I believe has been unfairly belittled in reviews. Konstanze's aria "Ach ich liebte'' in Act One has been sung by other light sopranos - notably a really excellent recording by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf - and Rothenberger is quite successful here. The result is not opulent; I notice an uncanny resemblance to the thinned-down timbre of Beverly Sills during the 1970s.

The aria ''Martern aller Arten'' requires a defiance and depth of emotion which holds up the drama somewhat but it is one of the most remarkable arias for coloratura soprano. In this performance I find Rothenberger rather frustratingly underpowered. She is stylish and shows some character, I still find this performance an improvement over Koth on the Jochum set, but none of these versions sets new standards in the role. For really satisfying contemporary performances I suggest Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland in recitals/rehearsals. They bring larger, darker voices to this dramatic show-piece and still manage the coloratura well. In a complete performance I think the most satisfying of all is Edita Gruberova with Solti; she manages to combine the best attributes of the light sopranos and the more heavy sopranos. She is one of the few modern sopranos to begin to equal some of the great extracts put down on 78 and LP.

Gottlob Frick certainly has the stature for the role of Osmin which is a gift of sorts to a bass with the requisite flexibility of voice and grand manner. I have the feeling that Frick, as with the other singers, is perhaps too closely recorded with the effect that any hardness or wear on his still-rich voice is revealed in a rather unforgiving light. The result is vivid but there is no denying that Frick was in easier and fresher voice for the recording with Beecham some ten years earlier.

Although Frick sounds a little worn at times he is very characterful throughout - milking his arias with the best. He is an exceptional colleague in such pieces as 'Vivat, Bacchus!'' with (Gerhard Unger) being full of bite and comic vitality. Comparing this performance of the virtuoso aria ''O! wie will ich triumphiren'' with the Beecham recording you notice that the older set sounds more like a live version with this set performed for the microphones.

Frick's performance here is still something to marvel at, a classic, with the characterisation being a deal more vivid than others on record. From the beginning of the opera, [Track 3] when we are introduced to Osmin, Frick is larger than life. He steals the limelight entirely as the composer requires. This is especially the case in the gruff confrontation with his love-rival Pedrillo. The latter is sung here by the really excellent Gerhard Unger who sounds just like Gedda at times.

Krips is a lively presence throughout - eager and bright in the overture and maintaining that throughout. This performance is less charming I think than Beecham which has a great sense of occasion. However, it is just as good as Jochum with the standard remaining exceptionally high. One good example is the amiable and lively introduction to Track 13 on CD2.

I find having the synopsis and the libretto on a bonus CD a real nuisance - the number of times you sit back and read the libretto in your hands while listening along on a hifi/portable music player surely far exceed the times you are going to access the bonus CD on a PC. I far prefer having a hard copy of the libretto which you can read at any time - irrespective of having access to a PC.

I suggest that the Beecham recording is the more satisfying performance overall especially at the budget price available on-line. I must include the proviso that each of the other sets has its good points. The Jochum one, although it enshrines the performance by Fritz Wunderlich which has me reaching for superlatives, is perhaps not quite as good as this Josef Krips set. It is, despite the issues I have raised, well conducted and well sung if not quite the sum of its parts. For the whole picture one probably needs a modern recording as well with my choices in this connection being the Solti with Gruberova and the Gardiner recording, both digital.

David Bennett

A starry cast, with a classic performance from Gottlob Frick, achieving not quite the sum of its parts.