A Magic Flute Delights and Surprises

A divine amalgam of joy and solemnity and one of Mozart’s most spiritually elevated creations, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) brings each generation's finest conductors and singers to the microphone. Now, Metropolitan Opera conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and tenor-cum-baritone Rolando Villazón and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe add to their series of Mozart recordings for Deutsche Grammophon with a star-studded version that includes some of the best young and veteran artists of our time.

The lively overture's carefully judged dynamic swings attest to the care that Nézet-Séguin lavished on the production. While he clearly has been influenced by period instrument research and practices, he rarely allows forward pace to overwhelm the opera’s heart-touching, profound, and childlike passages. Even when he sticks mostly to strict time, as in Pamina’s tragic aria, “Ach, ich fühls” (Ah, it has vanished), he allows his singer (Christine Karg) to slow down at the end. He includes all the spoken dialogue, an essential that many recordings omit. In addition, the recording—which I auditioned in 24/96 WAV (it is also available on CD), impresses with its beautifully saturated colors, transparency, and depth.

And yet, Nézet-Séguin makes some questionable choices. Foremost is choosing Klaus Florian Vogt, a tenor most associated with Wagner, as Tamino. In all but his highest passages, he may fool you into believing that he is a young innocent Mozart singer in his ‘20s, but his choice to always opt for naïve sweetness over passion robs his Prince of some of his humanity. Tamino’s aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” ("This portrait is most lovely and enchanting")—one of the greatest musical statements of exalted love and purity ever written—comes across as a tune suitable for a sing-along. Despite a few passages where Vogt seems to forget how “Vogt” should sound and instead allows himself to become Tamino, he is a major disappointment.

The other disappointment is that most of these artists are far better at singing than at reciting dialogue. Too much dialogue sounds deadpan and lacking conviction. The brilliant exception is Villázon, as Papageno, who in his surprising assumption of a baritone role imbues every spoken line with character. Although his singing occasionally betrays a gruff aggressiveness that makes for a less an ideal Papageno, his characterization is so vivid that it must be heard.

Several other artists are exceptional. In the past decade, coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova (Königin der Nacht) has matured into a singer who melds impressive technique—her high F shines like few others—with thrilling dramatic conviction. Rarely will you find a Queen of the Night who (in all but her highest notes) sounds like the raging evil Queen she is.

At the other end of the frequency spectrum, bass Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro) is one of the finest High Priests I’ve heard in a long, long time. As gratifying as it may be to hear a true bass plumb the depths, Selig’s ability to imbue his character with a warmth that conveys kindness, compassion, and wisdom is more important. On record, at least, Selig’s Sarastro bears comparison with recordings of the Priest’s arias by the great Alexander Kipnis and Ezio Pinza.

Christiane Karg’s Pamina grows lovelier as the recording progresses. Although she occasionally sounds harsh when singing loud with passion, her softer, more relaxed tone is near-ideal—especially when she controls her tendency to jump down from a note via a slight straight-voiced push that slightly disrupts the legato line. Absolutely no Pamina I’ve heard has ever approached Tiana Lemnitz’s heart-breaking rendition of “Ach, ich fühls,” but Lemnitz had as a conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, whose romantic approach to Mozart’s music allowed a depth of expression in this aria that strict time cannot.

Tareq Nazmi’s all-too-brief turn as the Sprecher (Speaker) suggests that if his voice is big enough, major roles beckon. Ditto for Regula Mühlemann (Papagena), who is already a major star. The Three Ladies blend wonderfully, the Three Boys are delightful, and the Rias Kammerchor under Justin Doyle is exceptional.

I first came under the spell of this opera through the famed 1937/1938 Berlin Philharmonic recording in which Beecham conducts a mostly remarkable cast that includes two ideally voiced singers with Nazi affiliations—soprano Tiana Lemnitz (Pamina) and Gerhard Hüsch (Papageno)—and another clarion-voiced Nazi, Helge Rosvaenge, as Tamino. If you ignore the fact that Beecham axed two other ideal singers, Richard Tauber (Tamino) and Kipnis (Sarastro) because of their Jewish heritage, and replaced several orchestral players who were Jews, his recording remains a milestone. Yes, tempos are broad, and the playing and romanticism lack authenticity, but the spell that recording weaves is strong.

Ditto for this recording, save when Vogt is in the forefront. In addition to Beecham’s audio-only version, worthy alternatives include Sir Colin Davis’ love-touched video from the Royal Opera House, which includes Diana Damrau’s fabulous Queen of the Night and Dorothea Röschmann’s marvelous Pamina (although his Tamino isn't ideal, either), the classic Böhm with the Berlin Philharmonic and the great Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino, and perhaps Claudio Abbado’s version with René Pape’s Sarastro and Röschmann’s Pamina. This new Flute doesn't replace them, but it deserves a place alongside them.

Graham Luke's picture

...the reptile that gets shot with an arrow near the beginning of this opera. I had to lie 'dead' on the stage for the rest of the scene which was highly uncomfortable as the costume was hot and restricted my breathing somewhat.
Neverthless, when the three young sopranos would sing their aria up-stage left of my prone body, they would regularly reduce me to tears.
Just beautiful. Thankyou Wolfgang Amadeus. (I hope I'm thinking of the right opera...)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You've got it. Glad you survived.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

The 'Spa' looks nice at the Gaylord Rockies, in the pictures, RMAF 2019 ....... Have a good time ....... Looking forward to your reporting :-) .........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Let's see, go room-to-room and report, and maybe even listen to Mozart on a good system, or receive a body wrap and paraffin hand treatment? Well, I could write a report about the sound system in the spa, and then watch as I'm stuffed in a body bag by Stereophile's readership. Not the trial that Mozart was writing about in Die Zauberflöte. So, with thanks for the thought of the Serinus pampering himself, I think I'll skip the spa, and encourage someone to actually listen to this recording and comment on it.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I was suggesting the 'Spa' because, that is probably where you can meet all the movers and shakers in high-end audio ....... Their deputies are probably gonna be the ones, who will be demo-ing the equipment ........ Also, I'm sure all the 'Golden Ears' will be hanging out at the 'Spa' :-) ........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have never found that to be the case. The investors don't go to shows, but the designers and company owners who do are hands on in the rooms. Everyone who goes to a show knows who these people are, and they respect them as much as I do.

Back to Mozart already. Has anyone listened to this recording?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Yes, I have listened to this Mozart recording ....... It is excellent ....... Thanks for the recommendation of this recording :-) .......

billinga's picture

Thanks for the informative review- now off to explore different versions this piece!

wagnerfan's picture

Where did you get the idea that Beecham "axed" Kipnis and Tauber for the 1937 Berlin Zauberflote. Both had left Germany for obvious reasons that they were Jewish years before the recording sessions began. In fact Beecham used Tauber for his production of Zauberflote in London in 1938. And why would you think Beecham had any authority to get rid of any Jewish members of the Berlin Philharmonic assuming there were any left which I doubt in 1937?