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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) - opera in two acts, KV 620 (1791) [152:00]
Ana Durlovski - The Queen of the Night
Dimitry Ivashchenko - Sarastro
Pavol Breslik - Tamino
Kate Royal - Pamina
Michael Nagy - Papageno
Regula Mühlemann - Papagena
Annick Massis - First Lady
Magdalena Kožená - Second Lady
Nathalie Stutzmann - Third lady
José van Dam - Speaker
James Elliott - Monostatos
David Rother, Cedric Schmitt, Joshua Augustin - Three Boys
Andreas Schager - First Priest
Jonathan Lemalu - Second Priest
Benjamin Hulett - First man in armour
David Jerusalem - Second man in armour
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 29 March and 1 April 2013, Baden-Baden Easter Festival, Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany
Director: Robert Carsen
Sets: Michael Levine
Costumes: Petra Reinhardt
Lighting: Robert Carsen, Peter van Praet
Video: Martin Eidenberger
Dramaturg: Ian Burton
Video Director: Olivier Simonnet
HD Photo Stills provided by Johnny Martineau
Picture Format: 1080i Full HD 16.9
Audio Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Bonus audiovisual material: (Introduction by Sir Simon Rattle [17:14]; Robert Carsen on the staging of The Magic Flute [11:06]; Behind the scenes [14:54])
Berlin Philharmoniker BPH 130012 [152:00]

Congratulations are in order for this mightily impressive Blu-Ray production of Mozart’s enduringly popular The Magic Flute. Staged at the Festspielhaus, Robert Carsen’s production opened the Baden-Baden Easter Festival and marked the Berlin orchestra’s first live recording of The Magic Flute in their long and distinguished history. It’s remarkable that this distinguished orchestra has neglected The Magic Flute for such a long period. According to Rattle, members of the current orchestra can’t even remember the last time they played the overture. It was also a surprise that they had gone to Baden-Baden, breaking a tradition that had lasted over forty years to spend Easter at Salzburg. The four Baden-Baden Easter Festival performances were followed, a few days later, by a concert performance from the Philharmonie in Berlin. This is available in the archive of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s digital concert hall, their internet platform; it’s available to view by ticket purchase or subscription.
Prior to this live recording the orchetsra had made three studio recordings of the score. The first was recorded pre-second world war under Beecham in 1937/38, the second was in 1964 with Böhm followed by Karajan in 1980. As music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2002 Rattle has made numerous recordings and it may therefore come as some surprise that this is the first time he has even conducted The Magic Flute,never mind recorded it. The bonus material includes a remarkable introduction by Rattle saying he has spent his life avoiding conducting the score and how it could be a graveyard for conductors. Rattle does however recall Bernard Haitink at Glyndebourne doing the opera wonderfully with just a single rehearsal. 

It was in 1791 that Mozart collaborated with the versatile Bavarian impresario Emanuel Schikaneder who wrote the libretto for The Magic Flute. A couple of months before his death Mozart conducted the opera’s première in September 1791 at Schikaneder’s own Theatre auf der Wieden in Vienna with Schikaneder playing the role of Papageno. The success was such that it was staged over 230 times in its first ten years at the Theatre auf der Wieden. It is testimony to Mozart’s capacity that at a time towards the end of his life, tormented by failing physical and mental health and mounting debts, he could write music of vital energy, japery and fantasy. Imbued in the libretto are mysterious Freemasonry rituals and the omnipresence of death and dying. Carsen remarks that death is mentioned around sixty times together with two suicide attempts. 

Carsen had directed The Magic Flute some twenty years before in a completely different staging at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In the filmed bonus material he explains how difficult it is for a director to hold everything together. The Mozart/Schikaneder collaboration is in the form of a Singspiel that was popular at the time combining singing and spoken dialogue. Carsen decided he had to cut some of the text which he felt was done judiciously. Michael Levine’s cleverly designed and rather functional set looks extremely simple, concentrating on differentiating an upper and a lower world. Making up a forest scene are floor to roof images that move through the four seasons using still photos of the woods taken by Johnny Martineau at the Komoka Provincial Park, Ontario. Basically the stage surface is a large grassed area like a woodland glade that has been extended to surround the orchestra pit to enable the cast to walk around and look down into it. In the grass, recently dug graves or vaults, complete with banks of moist spoil, allow access by ladders to the dark and mysterious under-world of Sarastro’s Temple of the Sun. Especially effective is the scene where the floor is strewn with coffins. Papageno opens a coffin and, finding it containing bottles of wine, takes one, bites out the cork and begins to swig. With costumes designed by Petra Reinhardt, Carsen’s concept places the characters in contemporary clothes. For example, Pavol Breslik as the barefooted Tamino wears a smart, cream-coloured suit and white shirt. We have Papageno not wearing the traditional bird-catcher’s ridiculous coat of feathers but dressed in something equally absurd: backpackers gear complete with hiking boots, rucksack and a blue baseball cap worn back-to-front. Barefooted Kate Royal plays Pamina wearing a white dress belted at the waist. I’m not sure which rotter had the idea to dress the three boys in white dresses identical to Pamina but it’s only in one scene. Dressed in smart black suits as if attending a funeral the three ladies played by Annick Massis (First Lady), Magdalena Kožená (Second Lady) and Nathalie Stutzmann (Third Lady) sing and act with immense gusto and come close to stealing the show. It is easy to laugh at their comedy antics especially the scene when they get all excited and aroused by the young, athletic body of Tamino lying on the floor. 

During the performance a few more shots of the audience would have added to the live feel. It really was terrific viewing when close to the end Pamina, near to madness, was walking through the packed auditorium towards the stage holding a large knife.
It’s difficult to find a weak link in Rattle’s outstanding cast such is their high performance level. Thanks to the considerable advocacy of Rattle, English soprano Kate Royal is significantly experienced for her relatively young age. Royal makes a most convincing girlish Pamina bringing suitable vulnerability to the part. Especially impressive is Pamina’s aria Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden beautifully sung with freshness, a radiant purity and near flawless control. Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik comes across as a fairly boyish Tamino if somewhat lacking in stage presence in this difficult role. His arias Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön and Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton are sung most effectively and display an attractive bright tone.

Through illness soprano Simone Kermes had to pull out of rehearsals for The Queen of the Night role. Her place was taken by Macedonian coloratura soprano Ana Durlovski who may look rather young to be the mother of Pamina; nevertheless she is no stranger to the role which she plays with relish. Assured in her vamp-like portrayal Durlovski has real stage presence. A highlight is the Queen’s famous aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. This expression of vengeance may have been sung with more composure and a more dazzling coloratura yet with all the physical movement required during the aria the overall effect is striking. In spite of having to lug the annoying rucksack, baritone Michael Nagy as Papageno is notable throughout and for me deserves his share of the plaudits. His celebrated aria Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja is gloriously rendered with a natural feel, revealing a lovely rich baritone with crystal clear diction and considerable amplitude. The contribution of rock-solid bass-baritone Dimitry Ivashchenko should be recognised. In the rather static role of Sarastro, Ivashchenko makes a dramatic impression and his aria O Isis und Osiris is well focused with an agreeable medium deep richness to his voice. Despite Rattle’s long-time reservations over conducting the score, as one has come to expect, he does an excellent job. The interpretation feels highly sensitive to the performers’ needs and never comes close to swamping the weight of the voices. Impeccably prepared, the playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker has a splendid unforced quality feeling both fresh and colourful.
Under Carsen’s masterly direction the action moves forward steadily and effectively with a number of examples of artistic and practical ingenuity that make fascinating watching. Highly effective lighting by Carsen and Peter van Praet really makes an impact and video director Olivier Simonnet employs a sensible camera technique that satisfies and never intrudes. The performance itself is beautifully shot, nicely detailed with clean, vivid colour. The sound engineers have provided excellent sound quality that I found satisfyingly clear with a fine and particularly well balanced presence. 

Lasting forty-three minutes the fascinating and informative bonus material filmed in a documentary style comprises an, ‘Introduction by Sir Simon Rattle’, ‘Robert Carsen on the staging of The Magic Flute’ and a ‘Behind the Scenes’. The gatefold card sleeve also contains a slim booklet as comprehensive as possible without including the sung German libretto which is easy to overlook as we get fine subtitles. There is a comprehensive cast-list and track-listing together with a good synopsis, a couple of very interesting essays: the first ‘Notes on The Magic Flute’ and the second ‘Sex, Ghosts and patricide’ that deals with the staging of The Magic Flute. There are also concise biographies of the six main performers. 
The booklet notes explain that this Carsen/Rattle production of The Magic Flute from Baden-Baden proved to be an unforgettable experience for the orchestra and the production team; which virtually says it all. I would call it a triumph. How I would have loved to have been there at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus.  

Michael Cookson