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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Recordings Review: The Whole Flute

René Jacobs' 2010 studio Die Zauberflöte is three hours of Mozartean bliss.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(Ed. Note: This is a slightly revised re-post of a recording from two years ago, with some further thoughts upon further listening. It's still like no other recording in the catalogue, but I have some reservations I needed to express.--P.) 
The new René Jacobs recording of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte stands apart from all the other recordings of this opera in the catalogue. Sprawling onto three discs and running almost three hours, this innovative set presents the opera as Mozart's original audience may have heard it in 1791.

Most early recordings of Mozart's final opera either eliminated the spoken dialogue altogether (as "unmusical") or had the singers (or worse yet, voice actors) recite the dialogue with no accompaniment whatsoever. Too often, the result was a series of dry, boring interruptions in the music that would have listeners reaching for the 'skip' button. This recording takes the opposite approach, opening up all the standard cuts and treating the opera's libretto as organic dialogue between living, breathing theatrical characters.

Jacobs has assembled a talented young cast, led by the pairing of Daniel Behle and Marlis Petersen as Tamino and Pamina. Daniel Schmutzhard is a warm, funny Papageno, able to cut loose in the opera's comic scenes. He is well matched with Sunhae Im as Papagena. (Ms. Im also does a convincing "old crone" voice for her character.) Marcos Fink is a sturdy baritonal Sarastro. Bass Konstantin Wolfff is all over the Temple in a triple role: he's the Speaker, one of the Priests and one of the Two Men in Armor.

The only serious hitch in the casting is the Finnish soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaappolla as theQueen of the Night. Although this is a short part, recorded under studio conditions, Ms. Kaapolla caps her arias with some ugly attempts that hover near a high F but sometimes pull sharp. (This is especially noticeable at the very end of "O zittre nicht.") Were these the best takes that the recording engineers could manage?

Character tenor Kurt Azesberger brings Monostatos to new depths of depravity, especially since he doesn't have most of his lines cut. His entry is accompanied by whip-cracks, making the slave-driving Moor a menacing figure. Also, the racist references in the libretto ("schwarz" and so on) are left in, along with the scene with the three slaves. All these effects sound like distractions, but they enhance the drama of the work, particularly in the complex second act with its rapid scene changes.

The addition of a pianoforte continuo helps accent the spoken dialogue. Also, this recording abounds in old-fashioned sound effects. Papageno is followed by the twitter of his captives, played on old-fashioned wooden bird-calls. The Queen of the Night gets a thunder-machine rattle every time she is even mentioned--and the big "bang"chord, mentioned by Schickenader in the libretto but left out of the sheet music.

Some "period" recordings of Mozart sound dry and stuffy. But here, the instruments have bloom and bite, played and conducted with pin-point accuracy. Mr. Jacobs selects brisk tempos for the most part, but his decision to slow down for dramatic effect at times (most noticeable in the "dancing slaves" scene in Act I) works too. It's all about serving the drama and making this opera come to aural life as a living theatrical experience. Simply put: this is The Magic Flute as you've never heard it before.

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