re:opera - mozart

 

Commented Discography of Mozart Operas
by RML

re:opera


Bastien und Bastienne | La Clemenza di Tito | Così Fan Tutte | Don Giovanni
Die Entführung aus dem Serail | La Finta Giardinera | Idomeneo | Lucio Silla | Mitridate
Le Nozze di Figaro
| Il Rè Pastore | Der Schauspieldirektor | Die Zauberflötte

 

~Ascanio in Alba

1 - Cinzia Forte (Silvia), Elisabeth Norberg-Schultz (Venere), Desirée Rancatore (Fauno), Marianna Pizzolato (Ascanio), Bernhard Berchtold (Aceste), Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Ottavio Dantone

2 - Marie-Belle Sandis (Silvia), Iris Kupke (Venere), Diana Damrau (Fauno), Sonia Prina (Ascanio), Charles Reid (Aceste), Chor und Orchester des Nationaltheaters Mannheim, Adam Fischer

3 - Jill Feldman (Silvia), Lorna Windsor (Venere), Rosa Mannion (Fauno), Michael Chance (Ascanio), Howard Milner (Aceste), Concerto Armonico, Jacques Grimbert

4 - Edith Mathis (Silvia), Lilian Sukis (Venere), Arleen Augér (Fauno), Agnes Baltsa (Ascanio), Peter Schreier (Aceste), Salzburg Mozarteum, Leopold Hager

 

Comissioned as a part of the festivities for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and the Princess Beatrice Maria d'Este, Ascanio in Alba was premièred at the Teatro Ducale, in Milan, in 1771. Technically, it is not an opera seria, but a pastoral opera in three acts labelled a festa teatrale due to the occasion. It basically consists of a series of virtuosistic arias surrounded by recitatives and choirs with very little dramatic action to link them.

Although it is rare to find a staging of Ascanio in Alba, the discography is particularly fortunate. Leopold Hager opens the proceedings in an animated if a bit mechanical performance, splendidly cast. Edith Mathis is the richest-toned and most varied of Silvias and relishes the athletic coloratura required from her. She is well partnered by the young Agnes Baltsa, fresh-toned and displaying unusually connected registers. That said, the low tessitura is a challenge for any mezzo-soprano. Arleen Augér is admirably at ease with the fiendishly difficult high coloratura and sings with unending poise and grace. Peter Schreier is also in great shape as Aceste, putting the competion to shame. Only Lilian Sukis's occasional ungainliness stands out in this Mozartian dream team.

Using a period-instrument band, Jacques Grimbert offers a lighter and fresher tonal palette, but not necessarily more thrill than Hager. That said, the prevailing gentleness fits the general idea of what a pastoral work should sound like. For a change, Lorna Windsor is a bell-toned charming Venus. The low gravitational center of the role of Ascanio fits the countertenor voice - the characteristic brightness of Michael Chance's low register helps to generate an atmosphere of youth and ingenuousness. He also sings with energy and imagination. The role of Fauno is a bit high for Rosa Mannion, but this does not prevent her from offering a genuinely charming performance. Only Jill Feldman boy-soprano-like tone is miscast for what is supposed to be the lovely and maidenly Silvia.

Nobody could expect that Ascanio in Alba would ever be released on video, but the 2006 Mozart 250th Anniversary produced the miracle. Even an important theatre such as Milan's La Scala included the work in that season. It is only a pity that no sensible mind in Salzburg had the good idea of borrowing for the festival the exquisite Milanese production - for David Hermann's staging from Mannheim is one of the ugliest theatrical events ever shown to an audience. The Arcadian landscapes suggested in the libretto are replaced by a space eeringly similar to a paint shop in an automotive industry plant. Also, shepherds and shepherdesses are replaced by a group of blond-bewigged zombies. To make things worse, the least trace of acting has been replaced by spasmodic movements from all involved. Those people tremble and contort themselves so much that you might feel dizzy after 10 minutes... Ah, Mozart's recitatives have been deleted and replaced by German dialogues delivered by two actors with microphones who also read out the staging instructions and actually introduce each number by saying "number 5 - choir...". Mercifully, Adam Fischer offers an animated and exciting performance, adding zest to a score that may sound uninteresting in less capable hands. If the recitatives had been preserved and the edition here adopted retained a couple of deleted arias, this DVD's soundtrack could be the reference in the discography. Iris Kupke is an adept Venus. Some may find her tone a bit overmetallic now and then, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Diana Damrau might lack the instrumental poise of Arleen Augér, but compensates that with her enthusiasm and spirit. Also, her ease with in alts is always something to marvel. It is characteristic of this admirable artist that she is the only person on stage whom you feel like watching in the course of the whole performance. Although Sonia Prina is made to look and act like Jack Nicholson in the final scene of Kubrick's The Shining (and even shake as if she had a vitamin B1-deficiency), she still causes a flashing impression with her extra-rich contralto. The dark tone, the crispy Italian pronunciation and her imaginative embellishment are strong assets in this difficult part. Finally, Marie-Belle Sandis is a capable Silvia, but her tone is rather veiled and colourless.

Although Ottavio Dantone's DVD from Bologna was recorded in 2005, it was released only two years later. The only reason why Michal Znaniecki's staging is not immediately dismissed as painful to watch is the existence of David Hermann's from Mannheim, which is unbeatable in detestability. If one actually decided to stage a Mozart opera in a bad-taste "classy" restaurant somewhere in Texas, the results would not be really different - it is a horror show involving mirrors, metallic columns, glittering fabrics, flexiglass tables, artifficial plants - with the exception of neon lighting, all the existing examples of kitsch may be found here. Costumes follow the same style and make such poor service to these singers that they could figure in a What not to wear episode. When you think it is impossible to get worse than this, there come disjointed ballet episodes with nymphs in white wigs and table forks stuck to their fingers. To pay all this justice, Bongiovanni offers grainy image and poor synch. Do I need to go on? Again it is such a piety, for the musical aspects are more than commendable. Dantone offers a vivid, stylish and animated performance, with adept playing from the Teatro Comunale's orchestra. Although the chorus seems to be dying to sing Il Trovatore, they are still more reliable than that from Mannheim in the rival release. Adam Fischer may be bolder in his theatrical effects, but the Italian conductor offers here more polish and grace. After a shaky start, Cinzia Forte more than meets the coloratura requirement from the role of Silvia. Her voice could be younger-sounding, but the fact that she is an experienced bel canto singer show why she is taking the prima donna role. Desirée Rancatore's pyrotechnical fioriture, impressive effortless top notes and rhythmic accuracy make her the most exciting Fauno in the discography. Marianna Pizzolato is a touching Ascanio - her homogeneous and velvety mezzo soprano is a treat to the ears. Bernhard Berchtold's tenor is a bit cautious above the stage, but the sound is pleasant enough. Only Elisabeth Norberg-Schultz is miscast as Venere - her tone is not noble and she has a bad time with coloratura.

 

~Bastien und Bastienne

 

1 - Edita Gruberová (Bastienne), Vinson Cole (Bastien), Lászlo Polgár (Colas), Liszt CO,Raymond Leppard

I guess that there is never going to be competition to this performance. It has the fabulous Edita Gruberová superbly partnered by Vinson Cole and Lászlo Polgár. The conducting is pleasing. More than that: the men sing beautifully the concert arias and Gruberova’s Susanna arias from Le Nozze di Figaro are what one calls "collector items".

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~La Clemenza di Tito

 

1 - Julia Varady (Vitellia), Edith Mathis (Servilia), Teresa Berganza (Sesto), Marga Schiml (Annio), Peter Schreier (Tito), Theo Adam (Publio), Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm

2 - Catherine Naglestad (Vitellia), Ekaterina Siurina (Servilia), Susan Graham (Sesto), Hanna Esther Minutillo (Annio), Cristoph Prégardien (Tito), Roland Bracht (Publio), Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opéra National de Paris, Sylvain Cambreling

3 - Janet Baker (Vitellia), Lucia Popp (Servilia), Yvonne Minton (Sesto), Frederica von Stade (Annio), Stuart Burrows (Tito), Robert Lloyd (Publio), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

4 - Julia Varady (Vitellia), Sylvia McNair (Servilia), Anne Sofie von Otter (Sesto), Catherine Robbin (Annio), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Tito), Cornelius Hauptmann (Publio), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

5 - Lucia Popp (Vitellia), Ruth Ziesak (Servilia), Ann Murray (Sesto), Delores Ziegler (Annio), Philip Langridge (Tito), Lázlo Polgár (Publio), Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

6 - Dorothea Röschmann (Vitellia), Barbara Bonney (Servilia), Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto), Elina Garanca (Annio), Michael Schade (Tito), Luca Pisaroni (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

7 - Della Jones (Vitellia), Barbara Bonney (Servilia), Cecilia Bartoli (Sesto), Diana Montague (Annio), Uwe Heilmann (Tito), Gilles Cachemaille (Publio), The Academy of Ancient Music Orchestra and Chorus, Christopher Hogwood

8 - Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Vitellia), Sunhae Im (Servilia), Bernarda Fink (Sesto), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Annio), Mark Padmore (Tito), Sergio Foresti (Publio), RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburg Barockorchester, René Jacobs

9 - Maria Casula (Vitellia), Lucia Popp (Servilia), Teresa Berganza (Sesto), Brigitte Fassbaender (Annio), Werner Krenn (Tito), Tugomir Franc (Publio), Wiener Staatsopernchor und orchester, Istvan Kertesz

10 - Carol Neblett (Vitellia), Catherine Malfitano (Servilia), Tatiana Troyanos (Sesto), Ann Howells (Annio), Eric Tappy (Tito), Kurt Rydl (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

11 - Hillevi Martinpelto (Vitellia), Lisa Milne (Servilia), Magdalena Kozena (Sesto), Christine Rice (Annio), Rainer Trost (Tito), John Relyea (Publio), Scottich Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, Charles MacKerras

12 - Carol Vaness (Vitellia), Christine Barbaux (Servilia), Delores Ziegler (Sesto), Martha Senn (Annio), Gösta Winbergh (Tito), Lázlo Polgár (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

13 - Anita Soldh (Vitellia), Pia-Marie Nilsson (Servilia), Lani Poulson (Sesto), Maria Höglind (Annio), Stefan Dahlberg (Tito), Jerker Arvidson (Publio), Drottnigholm Court Theatre, Arnold Östman

14 - Véronique Gens (Vitellia), Alexia Voulgaridou (Servilia), Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto), Michelle Breedt (Annio), Charles Castronovo (Tito), Paolo Battaglia (Publio), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Pinchas Steinberg

15 - Eva Mei (Vitellia), Malin Hartelius (Servilia), Vesselina Karasova (Sesto), Liliana Nikiteanu (Annio), Jonas Kaufmann (Tito), Günther Groissböck (Publio), Chor und Orchester des Opernhauses Zürich, Franz Welser-Möst

16 - Claudia Patacca (Vitellia), Francine van der Heyden (Servilia), Cécile van de Sant (Sesto), Nicola Wemyss (Annio), André Post (Tito), Marc Pantus (Publio), Vocal Ensemble Cocu, Musica ad Rhenum, Jed Wentz

 

Although Tito had been an opera which had been neglected by theatres and record companies, in the second half of XXth century it established itself in the repertoire and has had very good luck in the recording studio. The first studio recording was the Kertesz, which is surprisingly good, even for today’s standards. The tempi are fluent and the playing is light and accurate, confirming the Hungarian conductors’ legendary good reputation as Mozartians. With one big disappointment, which is Maria Casula’s coarse rather metallic and vibrant soprano, the cast is admirable. Lucia Popp sets her unsurpassed standard for the role of Servilia, Berganza is a delight for the ears, Fassbaender is impressive and Werner Krenn was a real find for the role of Tito - his voice is beautiful and flexible and he has a good notion of Mozartian style. His Italian could be better, though.

 

Colin Davis offers a grandiose performance of Tito featuring strong orchestral playing, massive choral singing and intense performances from his soloists. Although his approach is larger in scale than what Mozart might have had in mind, it does highlight the dramatic qualities of Mozart's writing and brings to the fore the proto-Romantic qualities of the score without making violence to classical style. In the role of Vitellia, Janet Baker offers her customary intelligence (especially in recitatives) and handles embellishment and other technical difficulties with aplomb. However, the role is too high for her range and she indulges in some unglamourous sounds, not to mention the disappearance of the high d in the act I trio. Few other singers have brought upon such a tormented rendition of the role of Sesto such as Yvonne Minton does here. As much as her conductor, she draws her portrait in a large canvas, but her firm-toned mezzo and clear phrasing help her to stay within the limits of Mozartian style. Only the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio might disturb those used to smoother coloratura. Ideally cast, Frederica von Stade and Lucia Popp prove their legendary reputations in her immaculate and exquisitely sung accounts of their arias and duettino. Stuart Burrows sings his arias with accuracy and stylishness. Also, his firmness of tone and reserves of power do create the grandeur his imperial role should have. Finally, the young Robert Lloyd is a forceful and dark-toned Publio.

In Karl Böhm's stately and impressive recording, things are a bit slow for our modern ears, but the conductor had some tricks in his sleeves, such as stressing the dotted rhythms the march before the second finale as the first section of a French overture. Also, the level of clarity of the final choir is unparalelled. At his side, the majestic playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden, wonderfully recorded. And there is a nice cast too! Julia Varady is in crystalline voice and offers an impressive Vitellia. Only her Non più di fiori could be a bit smoother. Edith Mathis is an efficient Servilia, the always musical Teresa Berganza is a bit past her best, but still lovely and Peter Schreier is in impressive voice and technique for Tito. This is one of his best recorded performances. Theo Adam is a strong-voiced Publio.

 

To close the pre-period practices phase of the discography, there is James Levine's dramatic and stylish performance, featuring the brilliant contribution of the Vienna Philharmonic. The cast could be better, though. As a matter of fact, there is only one notable performance - Tatiana Troyanos’s Sesto, a legendary vocal display. The rest of the singers are quite indistinguished, most of all Carol Neblett, who is taxed by the low tessitura and has her uningratiating moment, and Eric Tappy, ill-at-ease with the fioriture. This recording is the soundtrack of a movie by Jean-Pierre Ponelle, in which singers dub what they had previously sung in studio. The whole performances are set in actual Roman ruins and, although the aesthetics are almost entirely outdated, it has some interesting idea - not to mention that it is always worth while watching Troyanos, such an amazing artist.

 

John Eliot Gardiner’s tempi and phrasing are exemplary and there is nothing to fault there, although I can be accused of finding Levine more exciting anyway. Hearing this score in period instrument was a revelatory experience all right, but today the performance (caught live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall) seems somewhat conventional. The recorded sound is good, if not the last word in clarity. Julia Varady is still an impressive Vitellia, but her Italian is not still quite idiomatic. Sylvia McNair is a charming Servillia, but Anne Sofie von Otter, apart from exciting coloratura in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio, is not that impressive. The voice lacks punch and ounds a bit pale with the exception of her exquisite mezza voce. However, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a major performance, one of the most accomplished in the discography.

 

Three years before the Gardiner Tito, Arnold Östman had recorded his performance of this opera in his baroque theatre. The performance, although exquisitely conducted, with plenty of insight about Mozart opera performance, is not competitive, due to shallow orchestral playing. The cast is surprisingly good, considering the level of singing in his series, most of all the dark-voiced Tito of Stefan Dahlberg and the lovely Servilia of Pia-Marie Nilsson. Lani Poulson is an acceptable Sesto, but Anita Soldh simply does not have the right voice for Vitellia.

 

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's performance's shinging feature is the conductor's attention to the score's musical-dramatic effects. A wonderful example of the musical-dramatic possibilities of late Mozart, it is nicely played and recorded, in spite of an irregular cast. First of all, it is quite endearing to find Lucia Popp as Vitellia. Unfortunately, it was her last recorded operatic performance and she was already very ill during the sessions. This explains why some top notes are not exactly sweet (which is quite unusual with this singer). Despite the minor flaws, her Vitellia is still strong competition, especially in what regards homogeneity of registers and legato. Moreover, on making this Vitellia more human and feminine, she makes her volte-face more believable. Sample her Non più di fiori and you will understand. Ann Murray could also be an excellent Sesto - she is a sensitive performer, has a handsome voice and adept coloratura, but the top register could be in better control. The rest of the cast is below standard - Phillip Langridge is not in good voice and Ruth Ziesak was not at her most inspired. The roles of Annio and Publio are in the reliable hands of Delores Ziegler and Lászlo Polgár.

 

If Clemenza di Tito were a piece sacred music, Cristopher Hogwood's would be its best recording. It is lovingly played, sung and conducted - but one would have to use his imagination to see the drama here. Beautifully as it sounds, Barbara Bonney seems to be singing the Coronation Mass, partnered by Diana Montague, Uwe Heilmann and Gilles Cachemaille. Let us speak then of the singers who understood that this opera requires far more than that. Cecilia Bartoli was in her pre-freakish days and her native Italian makes wonders in recitative. However, the tone lacks brightness and punch and her legato could be improved. The truth is that she is completely shadowed by Della Jones, which is a most impressive Vitellia - in my opinion, the most accomplished in the discography. Although her registers are not completely blended, she has fabulous top and low notes and uses this very difference of register to dramatic purposes. Her phrasing is delightful, her coloratura praiseworthy and her decoration is admirable. The role is impressively sung throughout and she is the reason why I keep this performance.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Jed Wentz's recording ordered by Brilliant Classics for their Complete Mozart Edition. This is essentially a small-scaled affair with modest forces and reliable if unmemorable soloists. Wentz is a stylish Mozartian who prefers playing safe to bravado. Thus, the choice of tempi seems to be subject to accomodating the needs of the orchestra and singers, what makes for a clear but unexciting performance. Taking the role of Vitellia, Claudia Patacca is the most interesting member of the cast. Her bright and pleasant soprano keeps its tonal quality throughout the long range and she phrases with knowledge of Mozartian style. However, as the other singers in this recording, she has a fancy for over-the-top decoration. Cécile van de Sant is a light-toned Sesto. She is far from electrifying from the vocal and interpretative point of view, but fulfills all the basic requirements of her part. In the title role, André Post displays an agreable natural tenor, but his top register is a bit off-the-mark. Nicola Wemyss is a soprano Annio who copes really well with the lower end of the tessitura and Marc Pantus is a light flexible Publio, but Francine van der Heyden lacks a sweeter tone for the role of Servilia.

 

Riccardo Muti’s recording was made a live in Salzburg's Felsenreitschule in one only evening in the Felsenreitschule. Again, the Vienna Philharmonic is a wonderful orchestra for Mozart and the conductor is extremely inspired. It offers rich orchestral sound which is nonetheless ductile and perfectly blended. The scale of the performance is rather grand, but Muti’s sense of phrasing and tempo in Mozart is masterly. His faster-and-faster ways in the first finale, for instance, are simply sensational. If he had a better cast and less noisy recorded sound, it would be a must in any Mozart collection. Although Carol Vaness's Vitellia is really impressive, her phrasing could be smoother. Gösta Winbergh's Tito is also rather coarse and Christine Barbaux's urgent Servillia involves some strain. Delores Ziegler is commited and stylish Sesto. Her velvety voice has a most natural lower register and her coloratura in Parto, ma tu ben mio (where she "interacts" beautifully with the basset horn in a naturally flowing tempo) is impressive.

 

An alternative to Jean-Pierre Ponelle's film is the video from the Opéra de Paris, featuring a highly stylized production by Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann. Although settings and costumes are exquisite, the directors tend to make their actors overybusy, which is entirely unnecessary when one has such a talented cast in what refers to stage skills. In the prima donna role, Catherine Naglestad displays such impressive acting that she could be awarded a Tony if she performed it on Broadway. Although her tone is not immediately attractive and her coloratura in Deh se piacer mi vuoi is completely blurred, her sensitive phrasing, full creamy top notes, control of dynamics and acceptable negotiating of low notes are praiseworthy. She should work on her Italian, though. Susan Graham too has a mesmerizing stage presence and offers one of the most touching renditions of the role of Sesto in recordings. It is true that her low register lacks space these days, but her stylish, expressive phrasing is more than compensation. Hanna Ester Minutillo is an intelligent singer, but her tone may sound bleached out in the most exposed passages. Ekaterina Siurina's soprano may be too leggiero for Servilia, but she avoids any hint of soubrettishness and sings her aria exquisitely. When it comes to the male singers in the cast, one must be a bit more tolerant. When this has been recorded, the high register in Cristoph Prégardien's tenor had become entirely juiceless. As a result, his every ascent to top notes sound effortful and uncomfortable. Although his Italian has a hint of an accent, he handles his recitatives with imagination. Finally, Roland Bracht's bass is rusty and rather clumsy. Sylvain Cambreling's conducting is kapellmeisterlich in the bad sense of the word - it is thoroughly lackadaisical, but within the limits of what is considered stylish for Mozart nowadays. His phrasing is too soft-centered and, even if his tempi are more or less well-chosen, his flaccid accents make them sound often a bit sluggish. There is a tiny amount of freedom about the score going on here - some of the words in recitatives don't seem to come from Caterino Mazzolà's edition and the conductor allowed Vitellia to stay silent during the finale ultimo.

Live from the Felsenreitschule there is Harnoncourt's video. As previously said, the Austrian conductor has a master touch for boosting musical-dramatic effects in opera seria and knows how to point out the modern features Mozart introduced in the genre, but his legendary mannerisms have grown more evident too along the years. Although nothing really bizarre goes on here, his playing with internal tempo destroys horizontal clarity in numbers famous for their noble melodic features, such as Sesto's showpiece Parto, ma tu ben mio. This is highlighted whenever the singer taking the primo uomo role appears. Vesselina Kasarova has a voice with amazing resources - it is powerful, bright and ductile, but her manipulation of low register has become cumbersome and her languid artifficially overcharged performance does not add but robs the expressive power of Mozart's vocal writing. Compare her with Susan Graham in the Paris video and you will see my point. In the key role of Vitellia, Dorothea Röschmann is far more convincing and the all-out approach is made less obvious than usually because hers is basically a velvety lyric soprano. The lower end of her voice is not easy, though, and this unbalances her rendition of Non più di fiori. Elina Garanca offers a faultless performance in the role of Annio and one keeps wondering what a marvelous Sesto she might be. Alas, it is a bit late for Barbara Bonney, whose legato is no longer functional, although the basic tonal quality is still lovely. There is also Luca Pisaroni's firm-toned Publio, who benefits from the slow tempo given to his aria to fill in the blanks with his pleasant spontaneous baritone. Jens Kilian's use of the difficult venue's space is praiseworthy, although I cannot see the reason for having Tito singing among brooms, sinks and all kinds of construction waste. Bettina Walter's costumes are also most beautiful, but I don't see the point of having poor Röschmann undress them whenever she has to sing an aria. Even if Catherina Zeta-Jones was playing the part of Vitellia, it would be difficult to see the point. I really don't know what to say about Martin Kusej's stage direction. At first, it seemed that director's objetive was to give a realistic approach and to put the girls in the cast in lesbian-chic situations, but in the end those singers were made to look overwrought and silly - I would say with the possible exception of Röschmann, but then the director seemed he had to work harder on her and made her look positively ridiculous in her main aria. When it comes to Kasarova, it is admirable the effort she has to employ to bend her rather modest natural attittude into something wilder, but why a director would force an actor's nature into complete discomfort? In any case, the most serious victim is Michael Schade. Although his tenor is on the nasal metallic side, he is one of the few singers around able to deal with the intricacies of his part's writing. Alas, the director made he look like a delusional pacient in a serious manic fit throughout the whole opera. When Sesto refers to his "usual gentleness", the audience might have thought he was talking of someone else. It is true, though, that Schade seems to be a good actor, but the intensity required from him is downright comic. Unfortunately, he let it pervade his singing and distorted tone creeps into his phrasing more and more to the point when it has the advantage over any attempt of bel canto when it comes to his most difficult aria. With all musical forces involved, a wasted opportunity.

In 2006 we celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday and the special events around this date most fortunately involve the release of a great deal of recordings of the master's last work for stage. The pair of audio recordings, released roughly at the same time, could not be more contrasted - the only common feature is the level of talents involved. Charles Mackerras crowns his Mozartian series with a mature performance the all-round stylishness and sobriety of which could only be achieved by such an experienced and scholarly conductor. The rich yet light textures of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's sound make for absolute structural clarity and every choice of tempi and phrasing is grounded on the complete faith on Mozart's score. If I had to complain about something is that the chorus seems to be made of well-intentioned and behaved lads and lasses to whom anything related to Italy, let alone classical drama, is something almost unreal. Because of their unidiomatic and unconcerned singing, the dramatic situation in the act I finale is seriously underplayed. We are lucky, though, to find a more than commendable team of soloists. Although Hillevi Martinpelto's soprano has lost some of its loveliness and acquired the hint of a flutter in explosed top notes, her Vitellia is one of the most smoothly sung in the discography. She also brings a certain vulnerability and femininity even in the lowest part of her range that make her particularly seductive and pleasing to the ears. Lisa Milne's warmer and fruitier soprano is aptly cast for Servilia. Hers is an urgent and appealing performance. Truth be said, the most beautiful voice in this recording is probably Magdalena Kozena's and this doesn't seem to make lots of sense in this context. Her unheroic crystalline high mezzo does not fit the part - she always sounds like a very charming girl not entirely comfortable with the dramatic writing required from her. Although her elegant phrasing, expressive delivery of the text and spectacular coloratura cause a strong impression in her arias, the most exposed passages make for congested tone and absence of legato. On saying this, I don't intend any criticism against the singer, but rather on the casting of someone not suited to a role, in spite of all her talent and good intentions. Another difficult piece of casting is the title role, originally intended for Ian Bostridge and finally taken by Rainer Trost. It is true that this stylish German tenor now displays a dried-out top register and his divisions in Se all'impero are articulated in an odd gargling manner, but his voice is still handsome and forceful enough for this part. Christine Rice is a strong Annio, whose voice would seem more proper for the primo uomo role, if her top register were a bit more comfortable, and John Relyea is a reliable firm-toned Publio.

While Mackerras scored all his points on trusting Mozart's score and letting it speak by itself, René Jacobs seems to have felt the urge to do something to give a hand to the master. The result is that one is inclined to feel that the classical motto, inutilia truncat, should be applied to the notes not written by the composer, such as the intrusive fortepiano playing who disfigures public scenes with a sound intrinsically "intimate". The sudden and extreme ritardando and accelerando effects are also puzzling and make numbers inorganic within themselves, the dramatic point intended lost out of calling too much attention to itself. The excess goes into the field of vocal decoration: some embellishment applied to "A" sections is downright abusive and doesn't match the direct expressive style intended by the composer, such as in the charming duettino for Servilia and Annio, here transformed into a competition of re-writing. All that said, this is my favourite entry in the Jacobs series of Mozart opera recordings, his "baroque-isms" seem more proper to this opera seria than to the Da Ponte trilogy and some moments are particularly dramatic, such as the act I finale. In any case, if you do want to hear an intense and adventurous performance of this opera, you should really try Harnoncourt's theatrical performance on Teldec. Alexandrina Pendatchanska is one of the rare singers whose voices seem taylor-made to a role with such a schyzophrenic tessitura. Her basically metallic and powerful soprano is not exactly beguiling, but she sings with amazing bravura and feeling for Mozartian phrasing. Because of her tonal quality and intense manners, her Vitellia is doomed to sound aggressive and bossy from the start, but she could have fared better without decoration involving extra top notes that only bring out the harsh side of her voice. As Servilia, Sunhae Im displays a light bell-like soprano and feminine and sensitive phrasing. In the castrato role, Bernarda Fink brings her customary intensity, sense of style and expressiveness. Although hers is a most appealing voice, it does seem less compact these days and some of the most exposed moments, such as the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio, sound less impressive than one should expect. Mark Padmore is the lightest-toned Tito in the discography. In broadcast, his top register tended to bleach out into dimness, but in the official release this is not a problem. Although the tone does get disembodied up there, he is an intelligent and stylish singer who builds a more fragile character than we are used to hear. Marie-Claude Chappuis is a clear firm-toned Annio and Sergio Foresti is a varied and idiomatic Publio. There is a lot of extra lines in recitatives, but this does not seem to be an advantage when the continuo is fussy to a point of making harmony a bit confuse.

Vesselina Kasarova's Sesto would deserve a second entry in the discography when RCA has decided to prepare an audio recording centered on her, taken from live performances in Munich. In Pinchas Steinberg's well-behaved tempi, the rich-voiced Bulgarian mezzo-soprano's fussying with note values and registers is less disturbing than in live in Salzburg, when the conductor's mannerisms seemed to boost hers. Those other than Kasarova's admirers will find this a rather faceless release. Steinberg is a reliable conductor and has a good orchestra, faithfully recorded in hall perspective, but his is a non-approach: Mozart notes are all there respectfully and efficiently transferred from score to sound waves and one might deem it a more than decent evening in the opera house, but the fact is that repeated and comparative listenings might be too much for what has been preserved in these CDs. Although Véronique Gens is a musicianly and charming singer who deals rather well with the role's difficulties (although the act I trio finds her overcautious), this role is so distant to her personality that in the end it sounds as a well-studied series of arie di concerto. That doesn't mean she is a careless interpreter - she sings her recitatives with knowledge of style and dramatic situations, but the absence of iciness, petulance and attitude in her performance makes her someone completley different from what Vitellia is supposed to be. It is a matter of honour to any Servilia to steal the show with the duettino and her aria - Alexia Voulgaridou sings well, but does not do that. Michelle Breedt's Annio ends on calling more attention with her homogeneous and velvety mezzo-soprano. When it comes to Charles Castronovo, I have to confess myself more inclined to like it than most reviewers. He is no Mozart tenor and, in the depths of his soul, he would rather be singing Donizetti, but there is something earnest and unstudied about his Tito that makes him something different of every other English or German tenor in this discography. Paolo Battaglia is a rich-toned and flexible Publio, comfortable even with the sprightly fast tempi Steinberg decided to apply to his aria.

Two new videos and two opportunities to hear Vesselina Kasarova in the role of Sesto should seem more than enough for many, but when there is room for two, there is always room for one more. While it is always welcome to see a new video of a favourite opera, I am not so enthusiastic about Kasarova for the third time. Her mannered artifficial Sesto should be a curiosity in the discography, while the opportunity for real stylish mezzo sopranos in this repertoire, such as Elina Garanca or Anna Bonitatibus or Joyce DiDonato, has been twice lost since then. On the other hand, there is something new in this video, which is the deletion of Sussmayr's recitatives in favour of the bare declamation of a nutshell version of Caterino Mazzolà's already abridged version of Metastasio's verses. There are many things in the world that need fixing - starving childen in poor countries, to start the list - and nobody seems to bother about them. But Sussmayr's recitatives apparently elicit in everyone's hearts a strange willingness to do something about them. We had seen them cut, replaced by recitatives by other composers, you name it. The fact that Mozart himself approved them is, of course, of no consequence. As performed here, Metastasio's verses sound amazingly unconvincing. There is only one Italian singer in the cast, Eva Mei and, although she reads her lines far better than the other singers, she still sounds as if she were reading them - and there is a simple reason for that: try to recite a text you have always known as the lyrics to a song and you will see you will keep the rhythm set by the composer, instead of that of natural speech. As a footnote, someone in the production has a problem with the Italian word "germano" and has it replaced by "fratello" throughout. Don't ask me why. Back to the musical aspects of the performance, Franz Welser-Möst offers a virtually perfect performance - rich yet flexible orchestral sound, clear perspective, rhythmic vitality, sense of theatre - except when he presses the "touching melody" button. When this happens, the pace gets slack, the clarity is gone and one starts to look at his wristwatch. As one might imagine, this has a perverse effect on Kasarova, who finds in the conductor an ally to transform Parto, ma tu ben mio in spineless chanting. When the curtains open, one is surprised to see Eva Mei at her most glamourous and sexy and starts to wonder what this new attitude could do to her Vitellia. Unfortunately, the chic does not go into her singing, which remains rather cold and uninvolved. Although she has reserves of chest resonance for the low notes, her basic sound is too gentle for the circumstances. Curiously, Malin Hartelius's tone has become smoky and quite unfocused and her Servilia does not leave much of an impression. Among the female singers, only Liliana Nikiteanu (Annio) seems to be in good voice and animated to produce an interpretation. Jonas Kaufmann is an avis rara in this discography - his tenor has more than a hint of jugendlich dramatisch (he has sung Florestan in the same theater), but still retains some flexibility. His sound is darker and more plangent that one is used to hear, but - even if his runs in All'impero are a bit cautious - his results are unusually clean and musicianly. Finally, Günther Groissböck is a decent Publio. Jonathan Miller places the action around the 1930's and Isabella Bywater's costumes and sets are elegant and efficient. Only the burning of the Capitol could be a bit more dramatic.

 

IN CONCLUSION: The safest choice is either Mackerras or Gardiner, but Harnoncourt is the most revelatory and there is Lucia Popp’s Vitellia. For a traditional performance, the Levine video, even with its problematic casting, is still the best idea.

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~Così Fan Tutte

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~Don Giovanni

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~Die Entführung aus dem Serail

 

1 - Arleen Augér (Konstanze), Reri Grist (Blonde), Peter Schreier (Belmonte), Harald Neukirch (Pedrillo), Kurt Moll (Osmin), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm

2 - Edita Gruberová (Konstanze), Reri Grist (Blonde), Francisco Araiza (Belmonte), Norbert Orth (Pedrillo), Martti Talvela (Osmin), Bayerischen Staatsoperorchester und chor, Karl Böhm

3 - Laura Aikin (Konstanze), Valentina Farcas (Blonde), Charles Castronovo (Belmonte), Dietmar Kerschbaum (Pedrillo), Franz Hawlata (Osmin), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Ivor Bolton

4 - Christine Schäfer (Konstanze), Patricia Petibon (Blonde), Ian Bostridge (Belmonte), Iain Paton (Pedrillo), Alan Ewing (Osmin), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

5 - Christiane Eda-Pierre (Konstanze), Norma Burrowes (Blonde), Stuart Burrows (Belmonte), Robert Tear (Pedrillo), Robert Lloyd (Osmin), Alldis Choir, Accademy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Colin Davis

6 - Maria Stader (Konstanze), Rita Streich (Blonde), Ernst Häfliger (Belmonte), Martin Vantin (Pedrillo), Josef Greindl (Osmin), Berlin RIAS, Ferenc Fricsay

7 - Luba Orgonasová (Konstanze), Cyndia Sieden (Blonde), Stanford Olsen (Belmonte), Uwe Peper (Pedrillo), Cornelius Hauptmann (Osmin), The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

8 - Ruth Ann Swenson (Konstanze), Malin Hartelius (Blonde), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Belmonte), Manfred Fink, (Pedrillo), Kurt Rydl (Osmin), Stuttgarter Chorister, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Gianluigi Gelmetti

9 - Yvonne Kenny (Konstanze), Lilian Watson (Blonde), Peter Schreier (Belmonte), Wilfried Gahmlich (Pedrillo), Matti Salminen (Osmin), Opernhaus Zürichs Chor und Orchester, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

10 - Lynne Dawson (Konstanze), Marianne Hirsti (Blonde), Uwe Heilmann (Belmonte), Wilfried Gahmlich (Pedrillo), Günther von Kannen (Osmin), Academy of Ancient Music Orchestra and Chorus, Cristopher Hogwood

11 - Yelda Kodali (Konstanze), Desirée Rancatore (Blonde), Paul Groves (Belmonte), Lynton Atkinson (Pedrillo), Peter Rose (Osmin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Charles MacKerras

12 - Eva Mei (Konstanze), Patrizia Ciofi (Blonde), Rainer Trost (Belmonte), Mehrzad Montazeri (Pedrillo), Kurt Rydl (Osmin), Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Zubin Mehta

13 - Christine Schäfer (Konstanze), Malin Hartelius (Blonde), Paul Groves (Belmonte), Andreas Conrad (Pedrillo), Franz Hawlata (Osmin), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Marc Minkowski

14 - Malin Hartelius (Konstanze), Magali Léger (Blonde), Matthias Klink (Belmonte), Loïc Félix (Pedrillo), Wojtek Smilek (Osmin), Europa Choradakademie, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

15 - Aga Winska (Konstanze), Marianne Hellström (Blonde), Richard Croft (Belmonte), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Pedrillo), Tamas Szüle (Osmin), Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, Arnold Östman

16 - Edita Gruberová (Konstanze), Kathleen Battle (Blonde), Gösta Winbergh (Belmonte), Heinz Zednik (Pedrillo), Martti Talvela (Osmin), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

17 - Inga Nielsen (Konstanze), Lillian Watson (Blonde), Deon van der Walt (Belmonte), Lars Magnusson (Pedrillo), Kurt Moll (Osmin), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Georg Solti

18 - Cheryl Studer (Konstanze), Elzbieta Szmytka (Blonde), Kurt Streit (Belmonte), Robert Gambill (Pedrillo), Günther Missenhardt (Osmin), Wiener Symphoniker, Bruno Weill

19 - Catherine Naglestadt (Konstanze), Kate Ladner (Blonde), Matthias Klink (Belmonte), Heinz Göhrig (Pedrillo), Roland Bracht (Osmin), Staatsopern Stuttgart Chor und Orchester, Lothar Zagrosek

 

This most delightful of comic operas has always been a favourite of great conductors and has a long line of recordings - however, casting verges on impossibility. The main soprano and tenor roles plus the bass demand natural and technical qualities which are quite rare among singers. I chose to start my list with Ferenc Fricsay’s, still in the time when we were denied the complete version of some of Belmonte’s arias. The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera tells us that Fricsay’s performance is so successful because, instead of directly dealing with the traps in the score, it cunningly escapes all of them. I think that it was mean to say that of Fricsay and his orchestra. It is actually amazing that back in the 50’s, someone could have been so right about tempi and articulation as Fricsay is. That is already something to be praised - but his achievement also includes an absolute control of the orchestral phrasing, precise in an amazing level, even in the faster movements. Of course, more modern recordings have surpassed these standards, and some numbers are still heavy and slow, such as the janissaries choirs and Blonde’s Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, I would gladly use the Met guide’s words to describe the cast. Maria Stader is barely acceptable as Konstanze - she has a basically pretty voice, disturbed by lack of support in the middle register and a weird shriek-y attack in some notes as if she were singing operetta. Her coloratura is slippery sometimes too - in her favour, she has a most creamy top register. From the interpretative side, she is a total cipher. Her Konstanze is incredibly phlegmatic and the only point I can see in her gay and light Martern aller Arten is that she is either a masochist or that she really does not really now what death means. On the other hand, Rita Streich is a most charming Blonde, really natural about her patter. Ernst Häfliger has a pleasant voice, but it seems that Belmonte is a stretch for him. His Wir geh’n hinein in the trio with Pedrillo and Osmin seems to take him to his limits and, in the opening aria, for once in the discography, the verb bringen becomes "brongen" in sustained notes. Martin Vantin is not top grade as Pedrillo and the actor who speaks his lines sounds like a woman. (As a matter of fact, only Streich and Greindl read their spoken lines). As for Josef Greindl, he is the best Fafnerian Osmin in the discography. He has a naturally dark tone, good low notes and a clear line, provided he does not have to make it to move very fast. Moreover, he is really congenial in the role. The mono sound is very clear and immediate, with good low harmonics - only when the two women sing together we can feel some congestion.

If Fricsay had Karl Böhm’s cast, his recording would have been a classic. Anyway, Böhm has other advantages - excellent stereo recording and the flexible Staatkapelle Dresden, offering wonderful woodwind playing. His conducting is rather slow for modern ears, although the cast is so accomplished that it remains a model of good singing in this opera. Nevertheless, his deliberate tempo for the final Vaudeville is marvellous - it gives this music an emotional content unavailable in the faster pace now usually adopted. Also, when Böhm gets animated, such as in the opening of the overture and in the Osmin/Belmonte/Pedrillo trio, the results are quite exciting, although still lacking in atmosphere - it is too pretty in a general way. Arleen Augér is a light Konstanze, undisturbed by the virtuosistic demands of the role, Peter Schreier was in beautiful and flexible voice (although he does not sing the complete Belmonte arias) - together with his Tito (also for Böhm), his best Mozart performance recorded - and Kurt Moll is the unsurpassed Osmin. His bass is deeper, more flexible and beautiful than anyone else’s. And he is really funny too. Harald Neukirch is a light open-toned Pedrillo, but Reri Grist is in very nasal voice and the high notes are not always secure. I also regret that the dialogues were given to actors instead of the singers. The recorded sound is excellent.

Colin Davis's performance is certainly gracious, but that's it. Clear and warm-toned as the Accademy of Saint Martin in the Fields is, the performance lacks zest and theatricality. Tempi tend to sag and we listen to notes bureaucratically following notes with the only purpose of sounding pretty without much animation. Listen to the cozy Belmonte/Pedrillo/Osmin trio and you'll get the point. The cast has interesting performances. The leading couple sing their roles with a grown-up approach, which certainly is refreshing. Christiane Eda-Pierre has such an exotic velvety tone and sings with such a full yet light tone that she ends on being irresistible, even when things are not entirely into control. Although his singing is not necessarily ingratiating and his phrasing is too heavy, Stuart Burrows sings the part of Belmonte with a heroic yet rounded tone that certainly makes the role more positive than usual. Norma Burrowes is a delightful Blonde, discrete yet charming and completely at ease in the tessitura. Some may found Robert Tear a bit blustery as Pedrillo, but he also displays vocal ease and some power in this often undersung role. Finally, Robert Lloyd is an interesting Osmin, black-toned and full of nice interpretative details. Dialogues are spoken by actors, whose voices are not necessarily similar to those of the singers.

There is also Karl Böhm’s video from Munich, made when the conductor was 86. Although the tempi are still slow, the approach is surprisingly more energetic. An outstanding moment is the quartett Ach, Belmonte, truly uplifting. The orchestra is sensational - with clear woodwind and wonderful phrasing from the strings. However, it is a pity that there are lots of mismatching between singers and the pit now and then. The recorded sound is also excellent, providing weight, spaciousness and clarity. I think that this might be Edita Gruberová’s best Konstanze. She was in her firmest and healthiest voice and not only does she avoid mannerisms, but her detractors will not be able to accuse her of scooping in any way here. Nobody sings this role live with such energy and ease - in the end of Martern aller Arten, the audience just goes wild. Reri Grist is never on this level - she has intonation problems in Dürch Zärtlichkeit, but counts with the useful quality of being heard in ensembles. Francisco Araiza was in dulcet voice, but keeping reserves of power. It is a pity Ich baue ganz is cut and Wenn der Freuden is shown in its simplified version, for Araiza sings sensitively and stylishly throughout. Norbert Orth is a powerful Pedrillo - his top notes in Frisch zum Kampfe are simply awesome. Alas, although he is better here than in Solti’s recording, Martti Talvela is below standard as Osmin. He has poor notion of Mozartian style, intonation problems, difficulty with the lower notes and is careless about note values. Sometimes I had the impression that the pitch was a bit higher here, which would benefit Gruberová and Talvela, but, if this is true, it didn’t help him much. August Everding’s staging is too 70’s for my taste, but costumes are beautiful. His stage direction is almost unbearably artifficial, but everybody in the cast follows it with conviction and animation, particularly Grist and Orth, but the Selim is too dispeptic. There are some charming ideas now and then and, in the end, one tends to forgive the drawbacks.

Our introduction to Entführung in period practices is made rather agressively by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He took the pain of finding the "Turkish" instruments as close as possible to the original ones and the sound is excitingly stingy. I believe that Harnoncourt’s aim was to show us that dealing with the idea of turcquerie at Mozart’s time was not as funny as it seems today - the Turks have almost invaded Vienna not long before those days. And the conductor here tries to recreate some of the thrill. It works when we are dealing with the "public" scenes, but the intimate ones, such as the duet between Konstanze and Belmonte, demand a lighter touch. Also, the recorded sound prevents any kind of intimacy - I also find that the drums are too loud. The cast is far from perfect. The role of Konstanze is quite a stretch for Yvonne Kenny and, even if her voice is beautiful and the phrasing tends to be musicianly, she is operating too close to the edge. Peter Schreier is in dry rather gritty voice and Matti Salminen’s voice, described by one reviewer as "yawny", is foreign to Mozart. Lilian Watson is an appealing Blonde, though.

It is funny that Georg Solti, in his unpretentious way, achieved what Harnoncourt wanted so much to do. There is an underlying tension here, which, however, does not disturb the lyrical moments, which, by the way, take profit of the Vienna Philharmonic's transparent orchestral sounds. According to the booklet, the idea of recording this opera came to Solti’s mind on listening to Edita Gruberová singing Traurigkeit in a concert. Her performance is controversial. What is beyond argument is that she is really at ease in such a difficult role, challenging all other sopranos who ever sang it, making things even more difficult on throwing some extremely high pianissimi. Nevertheless, her interpretative variety sometimes gets dangerously close to preciousism, such as in Traurigkeit. It is a pity that Kathleen Battle was a bit shy in a role that, in theory, is cut for her. I suspect that she was not in her best shape either. Some of the high notes do not come off easily as they used to. Gösta Winbergh is a strong-voiced Belmonte, but I would have appreciated a bit more smoothness. Heinz Zednik is in trouble in his aria and Martti Talvela is unacceptable as Osmin. He is clueless about how he should sing the role. Moreover, he was past his best here. Decca's recorded sound is tipically overgrand.

Live in London, Georg Solti's animation and sense of rhythm produce a less poised and finished orchestral sound compared to his Viennese studio performance, but the recorded sound is at once full and clear, providing perfect balance between singers and orchestra. The staging is not particularly beautiful, but is unobtrusive and the idea of a thoroughly-westernized Selim is interesting and throught-provoking. The role of Konstanze is at the limit of Inga Nielsen's possibilities, but her full, rounded soprano and her fearlessness in dealing with her difficult lines help her through most of the role - although some passages of Martern aller Arten makes us feel sorry for her. On the other hand, Lillian Watson is entirely at ease as Blondchen - a charming performance. Deon van der Walt is a light, agile and dashing Belmonte, but it is Kurt Moll this performance's shining feature. The great German bass displays at once vocal virtuoso-quality, impressive control of the tessitura and real talent for comic acting. He (and probably Watson) is the only source of visual interest in an otherwise lackadaisical production.

I had previously being harsher to Cristopher Hogwood’s recording, but was finally won over by its animation, sense of comedy and natural recording. Woodwind are beautifully recorded, the phrasing is expressive and there is sense of theatre overall. Best of all, this bright and sprightly approach does not thwart the deeper aspects of the score. The trio with the bass and the tenors has all the tension it needs and Traurigkeit is given all the melancholy it needs. The only moment when I feel the conductor could be more alert was in the final vaudeville, where the tempo shifts could be more boldy defined - in the rest, he is in complete control of his ideas and means. In my previous review, I called Lynne Dawson’s performance as "bossa nova". Although it is too helplessly light a voice for the role, my criticism is quite tamed now. As she does not try to make her voice sound as an important one, she remains natural and pleasing all the time. More than that, her coloratura is really precise and she is always a tempo even in the fast paces adopted by Hogwood. Although richness of tone colouring is impossible for her, she is affecting in the freshness of her voice. Curiously, her best moment is Martern aller Arten, sung with technical mastery, good taste and fearlessness. Ach, ich liebte is a bit high for her voice, though, and Traurigkeit needed a bit more depth. Marianne Hirsti has a a brighter tone, but finds the role a bit high too. She is refreshingly economical in her characterization. When it comes to Uwe Heilmann’s Belmonte, it is difficult to define his performance. He has all the resources needed for his role - a pleasing tone, flexibility, mezza voce and intelligence. The problem is the way he handles those resources - sometimes, he sounds a bit clumsy, especially when the tone gets open in an overlit way or when there is flutter in the vocal production. His weakest moment is the opening aria, but he warms to a beautiful performance after all. Wilfried Gahmlich is an accomplished Pedrillo too. Gunther von Kannen is a funny unexaggerated Osmin - always congenial and imaginative. The tone is a bit woolly, but he manages to produce decent divisions and has acceptable low notes, although he is not a deep bass. The edition is complete.

Arnold Östman’s video has been recorded live in Drottningholm. His conducting is similar to Hogwood’s in its orchestral sound image, but Östman has a resourcefulness as a Mozart conductor which eludes Hogwood. However, it is difficult to do anything with an orchestra as pale as the one in the Swedish theatre. To make things worse, the cast is undistinguished but for the tenors. Richard Croft is a nice firm-voiced Belmonte and his Pedrillo is really funny.

Recorded live in Schwetzingen in 1991, Gianluigi Gelmetti's performance has fresh and absolutely transparent orchestral sound. Although the proceedings are animated enough, there is an absence of variety and imagination that verges on sameness - the janisseries sound polite, Belmonte's draydeaming seem rather blank, Konstanze's melancholy never go beyond prettiness and Osmin is just out of the context in this china doll display. Ruth Ann Swenson could be an ideal Konstanze - the tone quality is lovely, the coloratura is effortless, she can throw high pianissimi when necessary and she is definitely stylish. However, a generalized touching quality seems to be her only expressive tool - and she has her edgy moments too. Hans-Peter Blochwitz is also stylish and dulcet-toned, but the role seems a bit high for his voice and his phrasing can have its unflowing moments. His interpretation is also a bit detached; sometimes, it seems he would rather be singing something else. Although Kurt Rydl's singing lacks the necessary finish for Mozart, he was in firm voice here and is probably the most engaged member of this cast. Malin Hartelius and Manfred Fink offer exemplary performances of the roles of Blondchen and Pedrillo. Michael Hampe's production lacks imagination - stage direction, sets and costumes are bland to the point of indifference.

John Eliot Gardiner’s recording is energetic and animated. Some may found it too hard-driven, but it is my opinion that Entführung does not work if made to sound "comfortable". Sometimes, the conductor's dramatic points could be a bit more natural; his handling of ad libitum in Martern aller Arten, for example, is disturbing and, in his extreme orchestral effects, there may be some lack of clarity and charm. Luba Orgonasová really has a Konstanze voice and her phrasing is utterly musicianly. Her Traurigkeit is beautiful in its simple and affecting rendition. I have not seen anyone sing with such love for her lines since the days of Margaret Price. Stanford Olsen is a fluent Belmonte, singing with elegance throughout, although the tone is a bit nasal now and then. Cyndia Sieden is light and pretty as Blonde. Cornelius Hauptmann is witty, but does not have the means to sing the role of Osmin. The recorded sound is excellent.

Bruno Weil's Entführung is one of the best recordings of this work. The conductor has his own period-instrument band, but deals wonderfully with the often considered unglamourous Vienna Symphonic. His conducting is exemplary in its musicianship. He lacks a bit of the sense of danger, but it is so praiseworthy in its clarity and rhythmic vitality that one easily forgives him. The cast is very nice. For a change, there is a Konstanze who is not primarily concerned about technical aspects. Although Cheryl Studer's singing is not exactly immaculate, her generosity as a performer makes her quite a positive Konstanze, sung in full voice and in gleaming tone. Her Blonde, Elzbyeta Szmytka, is really pleasing, with an attractive shimmering tone and good sense of commedy. In my opinion, no other tenor is so eloquent as Belmonte as Kurt Streit. He is musicianship itself, is technically accurate and has a most velvety appealing tone. Robert Gambill, in his pre-Wagnerian days, is the best Pedrillo in any set. He really gets heroic in his aria, for once. Only Günther Missenhardt, despite an imposing bass voice, lets things slightly down. He lacks real technical fluency, but he displays a nice character. As a matter of fact, the cast really works as a team and the dialogues are very funny, especially when Missenhardt and Gambill are concerned.

William Christie and his team, after years of being labelled as baroque specialists, decided to explore Mozart. The level of his Mozartian performances is rather high, but this is his best Mozart recording. The conducting is most exciting and his sense of structure is so strong that he succeeds in keeping the unity of the numbers as if the dialogues did not interrupt them at all. The orchestra is excellent and so is the recorded sound. He has a very nice cast. Although Christine Schäfer's voice is not exactly heroic, she sings forcefully and her Martern aller Arten has real panache. I only regret that the tone is not as varied as it should. Traurigkeit is a bit monotone - the real interest lying on Christie’s beautiful orchestral support. Patricia Petibon is an efficient Blonde and Iain Paton is also a competent Pedrillo. Ian Bostridge’s voice is light for Belmonte, but he sings with real feeling and good taste. He makes beautiful things throughout. However, it is Alan Ewing’s Osmin who takes pride of place. He is one of the only singers in the discography to master the difficult writing without any sense of difficulty.

Now available on DVD, the Salzburg production of the Gerard Mortier days as the festival's director is predictably controversial. The story is transposed to modern days. So, the action takes place in a bunker surrounded with barbed wire and machine-guns. As a matter of fact, the transposition could have been effectively done if this did not include new scenes and extra dialogues (with some lines read in Arabic), which are not only irrelevant to the plot but also make the opera longer. However, the most regretable feature is the Turkish band playing traditional music, especially right between the vaudeville and the final ensemble. The stage direction is also exaggerated in a way that disturbs singers right in the middle of their (difficult) arias. All in all, it is a blessing that those singers can act! It is difficult to assess Marc Minkowski's conducting, since the orchestra is not clearly recorded, let alone the chorus. As it is, he adopts fast tempi and his knowledge of expressive effects is telling. The energy with which he approach numbers such as the trio for tenors and bass and Osmin's great aria is amazing - there is a real sense of danger in the orchestra. Also, his approach to Mozartian phrasing is of great interest, especially the way he finds grace notes where other conductors see "regular" ones. Nevertheless, probably because the singers are really too busy fulfilling the director's various wishes, there is an overall unpolished quality about the performance, especially in ensembles. Minkowski has given evidence of his talent as a Mozartian; it is a pity that he chose to record his Entführung in these eccentric circumstances. Recorded live, Christine Schäfer's Konstanze is far less appealing than in studio. The role takes her to her very limits, preventing her from offering clear coloratura, trills or really expressive phrasing. Although she is still charming and musicianly, Malin Hartelius's soprano lacks here some focus and does not blend really well with Schäfer's brighter voice. As much as Schäfer, Paul Groves sounds happier in his studio recording. Here, he does display a healthy tenor which readily takes to mezza voce, but he is too often too clumsy or careless about his phrasing for comfort. One may point out that this is a difficult role to pull out live, but you only need to listen to Deon van der Walt in the Covent Garden video to see that it is perfectly possible to be an utterly stylish and musicianly Belmonte on the spot. Andreas Conrad's tenor is a bit tight, but he manages to find the right effect in both his arias and is also a congenial actor. Finally, despite all his good intentions and dramatic sense, Franz Hawlata lacks the low register for the role of Osmin.

Hans Neuenfels' staging is a complete perversion of Mozart’s Singspiel. His re-invention of the plot made the whole thing simply impossible to follow if you do not know the story already and it does not help either to use two artists for each role: a singer and an actor. It only makes the stage crowded and it is simply unnecessary considering that the singers have better physique de rôle than the actors and are themselves good actors. Worse than that - Neuenfels re-wrote (!) the dialogues, making them longer than the original ones and the result is that this ultimately looses the essential quality of comedy, which is timing. Anyway, if the musical performance were something of particular interest, one could overlook the production (or turn the image off), but the fact is that it is really undistinguished. Lothar Zagrosek's conducting is acceptable in the ouverture, with good woodwind playing, but, once singers appear, the orchestra starts to be recorded in too recessed a way, turning the sound perspective very shallow. Also, Zagrosek's tempi are slow and his phrasing is heavy - and his cast does not help him. Catherine Naglestadt has a creamy soprano with some beautiful mezza voce effects, but she is unable to make it move. The coloratura is incredibly blurred - Martern aller Arten is a martyredom to the audience. Matthias Klink has a rather juicy, plausible voice for Belmonte. Unfortunately, he sounds too much the operetta tenor to my ears - his voice is a bit lacrymose and he is not very precise with divisions. Roland Bracht (Osmin) is the more familar name in the cast. His bass is certainly imposing if not really Mozartian and not very comfortable in low notes. The saving grace of the production is Kate Ladner as Blonde, who has a charming, bright and clear voice and is also very funny.

Charles Mackerras’s performance, the soundtrack to a film "Mozart in Turkey", is rather disappointing. Although the performance is neatly done, the conductor does not offer his customary special insight about the score. If he had more interesting soloists, maybe the necessary sparkle would have been produced. The bright-toned Yelda Kodali is a techically fluent Konstanze, but rather clueless in what regards interpretation. Desirée Rancatore easily ousthines her as Blonde and it is charming to find an Italian soprano in a Singspiel moreover. Paul Groves has a pleasant voice, but there is something overcareful about his singing. Peter Rose, however, is a good Osmin. He lacks animation, but does what he has to do with spontaneity.

The best option among videos of Entführung comes from Italy. Zubin Mehta's performance from the Florence May Festival is thoroughly enjoyable. As he has proved in his Figaro recording from the same source, Mehta is a stylish Mozartian mainly concerned with beautiful phrasing and clarity. His orchestra's flexible strings and the prominent woodwind are all for the best. The energetic approach and the brisk tempi plus rich recorded sound (perfect balance between orchestra and soloists) make it a compelling Mozartian experience. Although the stage direction is a bit exaggerated, the traditional and colourful costumes and sceneries are certainly refreshing. I only don't know if I like all that fuss about Osmin's pet crocodile... Crowning the performance, there is Eva Mei's impressive Konstanze. She is entirely at ease in her difficult part, has admirable sense of Mozartian style and phrases beautifully throughout - not to mention her floating pianissimo. Also, she finds true Innigkeit in her exquisite performance of Traurigkeit. I really cannot think of someone who can sing this part better than she does. Truth be said, she does not have the most charismatic stage presence one can think of, but that would be demanding too much, wouldn't it? Patrizia Ciofi's creamy lyric soprano is also the right instrument for Blonde - and she really seems to be having fun playing her spunky English maid. Although Rainer Trost's voice is on the hard side, his singing is pleasant, accomplished and charming. Mehrzad Montazeri is a strong-voiced Pedrillo who produces some really full top notes in Frisch zum Kampfe. Watching the video, one tends to oversee the fact that Kurt Rydl's voice is not a Mozartian instrument - at least not at this time of his career - since he is a funny congenial Osmin on stage. However, the unsteadiness, approximative pitch and unclear attack can be bothersome. Markus John is an interesting Selim, his gentleness and inner conflicts making his volte-face even more believable. The camera direction is a bit excentric: it is good to see the orchestra soloists during some arias, but I would rather look at the singers while they are singing.

The good news about Marc Minkowski's second video of Die Entführung aus dem Serail is that now the recorded sound is very good, faithfully preserving the superb playing of the excellent Musiciens du Louvre. As in Salzburg, Minkowski understands this score as few other conductors and knows how to plays all the effects intended by Mozart in an extraordinary but undemonstrative manner. The bad news is that we still have a dancing Passa Selim who reads his lines in Arabic, a weird production and an unexceptional cast. Promoted to the role of Konstanze, Malin Hartelius displays nimble technique, smooth coloratura and unusual attention to Mozart's instructions. However, the role is a couple of sizes larger than her voice. As a result, her soprano sounds shallow-toned and tonal variety is somewhat beyond her possibilities. As Blondchen, Magali Léger displays a sexy bright-toned soprano leggiero that has its edgy moments when things get too high and fast. Matthias Klink's tenor has lost a great deal of naturalness since Zagrosek's recording. One might think that there are two Pedrillos in this recording. Considering his clumsiness with fioriture, the absence of Ich baue ganz ends on being an advantage. I might be mistaken, but I could not recognise the version of Wenn der Freude featured here - it neither corresponds to the one found in old recordings nor to the one in the Gerhard Croll's Neue Ausgabe. Loïc Félix is a decent Pedrillo, but I am afraid Wojket Smilek is desperately overparted as Osmin. The production shown in the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence is not particularly beautiful to the eyes and the director has a fancy for filling the stage with cute little stage gestures carried out by a group of stooges as if he did not believe that one would care for Mozart's Singspiel if performed as devised by the composer. Curiously, these actors taking the Turkish roles are the blondest people on stage. Considering the percentage of people of Arabic descent in France, this has caught my attention.

Recorded during the Mozart 250th Anniversary Salzburg Festival, this 2006 production of Entführung aus dem Serail is probably the worst opera DVD you will ever buy. The point in Stefan Herheim's production seems to be laughing at those who actually like this delicious Singspiel as if the very fact that liking it was worth of mockery. Although silence is the appropriate review for this derisive production, DVD-buyers should be warned about what they would be spending their money on. In this staging, there is no abduction, no seraglio, no Turkey and no character named Pasha Selim. An innocent member of the audience would spend the whole night trying to guess why this nonsensical play about the battle of sexes in which every character is dressed as brides and grooms in a white hall filled with gift-wrapped boxes has this "soundtrack" with a Turkish flavour. The original dialogues have been replaced by a pointless exchange of platitudes about the nature of relationships and the libretto is only quoted to be made fun of by characters. If one turns the TV set off and leaves the speakers on, the musical performance in itself is far less disappointing. The edition here adopted opens all the cuts in Konstanze's, Blonde's and Belmonte's (except for Wenn der Freude) arias and includes the 5a March. Ivor Bolton's conducting is clear and sprightly, but do not look for any spirit behind the notes - the whole proceedings are as gemütlich as it gets. The Mozarteum Orchestra does a clean job, but the recording offers a somewhat recessed orchestral sound. The lovely Laura Aikin is overparted as Konstanze but refuses to surrender to that and plunges into her difficult arias with technical aplomb and refined musicianship. However, there is an omnipresent tension and the occasional overbrightness in top notes. When it comes to Valentina Farcas's metallic-toned Blondchen, the loveliness is restricted to her good looks and personal charm. Charles Castronovo's basic tone is appealing enough and he never cheats with Belmonte's divisions. His overcovered top register robs the finish of his Mozartian phrasing, though. Dietmar Kerschbaum's Spieltenor turns around comic effects. Surprisingly, he is not afraid of the heroics of Frisch zum Kampfe. Franz Hawlata still sounds ill at ease in the part of Osmin. His bass sounds dry-toned and constricted all the way, but his acting skills are commendable (as much as his Blondchen's).

IN CONCLUSION: In modern instruments, Weil is the safe choice; in period instruments, Hogwood is the safe choice. If you want your Entführung more exotic, in modern instruments, Solti is the one to fo gor; in period instruments, Christie’s or Gardiner’s.

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~La Finta Giardinera

 

1 - Alexandra Reinprecht (Sandrina), Véronique Gens (Arminda), Adriana Kucerová (Serpetta), Ruxandra Donose (Ramiro), John Mark Ainsley (Belfiore), John Graham-Hall (Podestà), Markus Werba (Nardo), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Ivor Bolton

2 - Julia Conwell (Sandrina), Lilian Sukis (Arminda), Jutta-Renate Ihloff (Serpetta), Brigitte Fassbaender (Ramiro), Thomas Moser (Belfiore), Ezio di Cesare (Podestà), Barry McDaniel (Nardo), Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager

3 - Edita Gruberová (Sandrina), Charlotte Margiono (Arminda), Dawn Upshaw (Serpetta), Monica Bacelli (Ramiro), Uwe Heilmann (Belfiore), Thomas Moser (Podestà), Anton Scharinger (Nardo), Vienna Concentus Musicum, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

4 - Eva Mei (Sandrina), Isabel Rey (Arminda), Julia Kleiter (Serpetta), Liliana Nikiteanu (Ramiro), Cristoph Strehl (Belfiore), Rudolf Schasching (Podestà), Gabriel Bermudez (Nardo), Orchestra "La Scintilla" der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

5 - Britt-Marie Aruhn (Sandrina), Eva Pilat (Arminda), Anna Christina Biel (Serpetta), Annika Skoglund (Ramiro), Richard Croft (Belfiore), Stuart Kales (Podestà), Petteri Salomaa (Nardo), Drottningholm Court Theatre, Arnold Östman

6 - Helen Donath (Sandrina), Jessye Norman (Arminda), Ileana Cotrubas (Serpetta), Tatiana Troyanos (Ramiro), Werner Hollweg (Belfiore), Gerhard Unger (Podestà), Hermann Prey (Nardo), NDR SO, Schmidt-Isserstedt

 

Mozart's early venture into Italian comic opera shows the young conductor's imagination at its most ebullient, trying lots of different brushstrokes and, if he found some criticism around the première in Munich, those involved the fact that there was an extraordinary abundance of beautiful arias (instead of a handpicked few for the prima donna and the primo uomo). Of course, the very experimental nature of the work involves some misfiring, especially in what regards timing.

La Finta Giardinera has first been taken to studios in German in the shape of a Singspiel (with which this opera has nothing to do). Before the complete score in Italian was found, there were only the set numbers in German. Some dialogue was provided and and the charming title Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe has been been concocted. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's conducting belongs to the slow and gracious Mozart performance practices era, but at least he tries not to make it overheavy. For once in the discography, a chorus has been hired too. Although it is rarely used in the opera, its appearance solves the schyzophrenic situation of having soloists saying how they are happy when singing together and how they are miserable only two minutes afterwards when singing alone in the middle section of the introduction. Truth be said, the reason why this recording still retains its interest is the all-star cast here gathered. Helen Donath may be on the soubrettish side in the prima donna role, but her crystalline soprano is always a pleasure to the ears. In the mezzo carattere role, Jessye Norman brings her natural vocal glamour and lots of personality. Although the standards are very high, I guess everyone will agree that it is Ileana Cotrubas who steals the show in the soubrette role - a thoroughly delightful performance. Tatiana Troyanos is also lovely in the castrato part, which sits a bit low in her range, though. Werner Hollweg is in splendid shape as Belfiore (probably his best recorded performance), while Gerhard Unger offers an echt Spieltenor version of the part of the Podestà. Last but definitely not least, Hermann Prey is simply irresistible as Nardo.

Leopold Hager has the honour of recording the complete original Italian version for the first time. The whole performance has a well-behaved atmosphere, but tempi tend to be flowing and spontaneous. Only the mood shifting in the finali is an art that eludes completely the conductor. The cast is a curious mix of the acceptable and the excellent. For example, Brigitte Fassbaender offers the definitive performance of the role of Ramiro and no other tenor makes so much of the Podestà's music as the spirited firm-toned Ezio di Cesare. Barry McDaniel's performance in the role of Nardo is an example of subtle and stylish buffo singing. Even in his Mozartian days, Thomas Moser's voice had a hint of instability. However, this resourceful singer employs a wide range of tone colouring and raises to the challenge of Da Scirocco a Tramontana as no other tenor in this discography. Lilian Sukis is a decent Arminda, but it is a pity, though, that both Julia Conwell and Jutta Renate-Ihloff's sopranos sound kitsch and a bit edgy. Where were Arleen Augér and Lucia Popp those days?

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is the conductor who took La Finta Giardinera to the world of historically informed performances. Here everything sparkles and the conductor's costumary concern with details fits a score in which the composer tried to impress through his attention to details. In the prima donna role, Edita Gruberová cannot help outshining all other Sandrinas. Even in the less inspired moments, this superb Mozartian brings to the fore the most diminute atom of interest. Dawn Upshaw's Italian has a distinct American accent, but that does not prevent her from giving zest to her phrasing and even to the text. A charming performance. Next to these imaginative sopranos, Charlotte Margiono sounds a bit tentative as Arminda - her tone too smoky, her characterization quite pallid. Nonetheless, this is a stylish performance that does not spoil the fun at all. The same cannot be said of Monica Bacelli. Ramiro gets some of the most charming arias in the score, but one barely notices that here. Uwe Heilmann's boyish tenor is a bit too noble for Belfiore and playing the cad is a bit outside his scope. Also, the low tessitura challenges him sometimes. That said, his tone is pleasant all the way and he deals beautifully with his divisions. Here given the role of the Podestà, Thomas Moser misses the verbal buoyance of idiomatic Italian, but compensates that with thoroughly sung account of his arias, relishing the extra power of his tenor for effects. Anton Scharinger is a solid Nardo, but fails to produce the right impression of an Italian buffo.

For a while, the only Finta Giardiniera in video came from Drottiningholm. As usual in that venue, the staging tries to reproduce the style of the XVIIIth century and does that beautifully, but this opera needs a better cast and stronger orchestral sound - otherwise, it may be a quite tiring experience. Britt-Marie Aruhn, Eva Pilat and Annika Skoglund are below standard. Anna Christina Biel is not first-level either, but her voice and herself are very pretty. The tenors are excellent, though, but it is Petteri Salomaa who steals the show, with a firm baritone and excellent commedy skills.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt would visit again La Finta Giardiniera, now on a video from Zurich, imaginatively staged by Tobias Moretti. The story has been brought to the modern days with discutable success, but costumes and settings are elegant and the stage direction is first-rate. Live at the theatre, Harnoncourt shows more flexibility than on CD, but that also means that some of the studio polish is lost, especially when some singers indulge in theatrical effects that disturb Mozartian lines, notably Rudolf Schasching, whose singing-style belongs rather to operetta than to Classical opera. By the way, I could not get why many lines in recitatives are spoken instead of being sung. Considering that there is only one Italian in the cast, the gain is really dubious. In the role of Sandrina, Eva Mei pulls out a lovely and stylish performance. As Arminda, Isabel Rey employs the kind of energetic singing that does not fit exactly her voice. The result is loss of tonal quality. She more than compensates that with her amazing comedy skills - she certainly has seen her Almodóvar movies... Julia Kleiter really goes for the sexy soubrette approach, but her voice is really too noble for this kind of role, as if Pamina decided to sing the other duet with Papageno. Liliana Nikiteanu (here deprived of her beautiful act II aria) is a creamy-toned Ramiro, not up to Fassbaender's standards, but certainly the best since then. As much as his Arminda, Cristoph Strehl's amazing acting skills interfere somehow with his phrasing. The results are unfortunately incompatible with legato. Gabriel Bermúdez is an incisive and forceful Nardo.

Doris Dörrie's production from the Salzburg 2006 Anniversary Festival is a controversial entry in the discography. It is indisputable that a great deal of the director's creative ideas have more to do with "making-it-funny-for-the-audience" than with the work's inner structure: the ballet staging Violante and Belfiore's fight during the ouverture does not go with the music, setting the opera in a kind of House and Gardening store does not go with the plot, the fact that Sandrina and Nardo are dressed in XVIIIth century costumes does not go with sense (they are supposed to run undercover...) - BUT if you overlook all that (and there is really a lot to overlook, especially dancing flowers) most of what you see is indeed funny and makes good profit of the cast's acting skills. Moreover, the show does not look ugly at all. Ivor Bolton is a reliable conductor and knows how to keep interest going. His orchestra is less colourful and his approach is less vital than Harnoncourt's, but the necessary elements are here, if you are ok with the generous amount of cutting made in the score (far more adventurous than in the other videos). Véronique Gens is a formidable Arminda, sung in her extra velvety flexible soprano - and her whole attitude works really well to this comically arrogant socialite. Adriana Kucerová is also cast from strength as Serpetta. Her energetic and sensuous singing is everything this role ask for, not to mention she is a naturally gifted actress. Only Alexandra Reinprecht's grainy soprano is far from beguiling, but usually reliable in the prima donna role. It is also sad that Ruxandra Donose's smoky mezzo-soprano is a bit out of sorts for Ramiro. Even unglamourously dressed, she seems to know what her role is about. John Mark Ainsley is beautifully cast as Belfiore. I was tempted to say probably the best in the discography, but the truth is that almost all the difficult arias have been cut in this edition (and there is always Werner Hollweg in the German version). John Graham-Hall's tenor is far from mellow, but all that is used to his advantage to create a ludicrous self-important Podestà - and he is far more adventurous with decoration than his rivals. Markus Werba is a strong unfussed Nardo.

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~Idomeneo

 

1 - Edith Mathis (Ilia), Julia Varady (Elettra), Peter Schreier (Idamante), Wieslaw Ochmann (Idomeneo), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm

2 - Margherita Rinaldi (Ilia), Pauline Tinsley (Elettra), Ryland Davies (Idamante), George Shirley (Idomeneo), BBC Chorus and Symphonic Orchestra, Colin Davis

3 - Barbara Hendricks (Ilia), Roberta Alexander (Elettra), Suzanne Mentzer (Idamante), Francisco Araiza (Idomeneo), Uwe Heilmann (Arbace), Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester und Chor, Colin Davis

4 - Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Ilia), Raffaela Milanesi (Elettra), Kristina Hammarström (Idamante), Christian Elsner (Idomeneo), Cristoph Strehl (Arbace), Danish National Choir, The Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Adam Fischer

5 - Sylvia McNair (Ilia), Hillevi Martinpelto (Elettra), Anne Sofie von Otter (Idamante), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Idomeneo), Nigel Robson (Arbace), The Monteverdi Orchestra, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

6 - Rachel Yakar (Ilia), Felicity Palmer (Elettra), Trudeliese Schmidt (Idamante), Werner Hollweg (Idomeneo), Kurt Equiluz (Arbace), Opernhaus Zürich Chor und Mozart-Orchester, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

7 - Ileana Cotrubas (Ilia), Hildegard Behrens (Elettra), Frederica von Stade (Idamante), Luciano Pavarotti (Idomeneo), John Alexander (Arbace), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine

8 - Heidi Grant Murphy (Ilia), Carol Vaness (Elettra), Cecilia Bartoli (Idamante), Plácido Domingo (Idomeneo), Thomas Hampson (Arbace), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine

9 - Lisa Milne (Ilia), Barbara Frittoli (Elettra), Lorraine Hunt (Idamante), Ian Bostridge (Idomeneo), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Arbace), Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Charles Mackerras

10 - Juliane Banse (Ilia), Annette Dasch (Elettra), Pavol Breslik (Idamante), John Mark Ainsley (Idomeneo), Rainer Trost (Arbace), Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Kent Nagano

11 - Ekaterina Siurina (Ilia), Anja Harteros (Elettra), Magdalena Kozená (Idamante), Ramón Vargas (Idomeneo), Jeffrey Francis (Arbace), Salzburger Bachchor, Camerata Salzburg, Roger Norrington

12- Anna Christina Biel (Ilia), Anita Soldh (Elettra), Richard Croft (Idamante), Stuart Kales (Idomeneo), Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, Arnold Östman

13 - Sena Jurinac (Ilia), Lucille Udovick (Elettra), Léopold Simoneau (Idamante), Richard Lewis (Idomeneo), James Milligan (Arbace), Glyndenbourne Festival Chorus and Orchestra, John Pritchard

14 - Lucia Popp (Ilia), Edita Gruberová (Elettra), Agnes Baltsa (Idamante), Luciano Pavarotti (Idomeneo), Leo Nucci (Arbace), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, John Pritchard

15 - Anneliese Rothenberger (Ilia), Edda Moser (Elettra), Adolf Dallappozza (Idamante), Nicolai Gedda (Idomeneo), Peter Schreier (Arbace), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt

 

Before we start to talk about the recordings, there are some important details to be explained here. Idomeneo had its première in Munich, where the role of Idamante was sung by a soprano castrato. Among many other cuts made by the composer BEFORE the first performance, there is the famous aria D’Oreste, d’Ajacce. Later, Mozart wanted to revise the opera, but he NEVER succeded into doing it (his idea was casting Idomeneo with a bass), but there was indeed a concert performance in Vienna, where the role of Idamante was taken by a tenor. For that performance, Mozart composed a new duet for Ilia and Idamante to replace the old one and a new aria for the later role, Non temer, amato bene, with violin obligatto. All the recordings listed above are not comprehensive about the two editions, but for Harnoncourt's if one buys the complementary disc, where Francisco Araiza sings the tenor Idamante music. Gardiner has all the music Mozart cut before the première and some extra material. The usual edition is the Munich with the big arias cut before the première, the above mentioned Elettra’s D’Oreste, d’Ajacce, Idamante’s No, la morte io non pavento and Idomeneo’s Torna la pace.

Idomeneo is a difficult opera for a short discography - the old recordings tend to be surprisingly good for their age. I would say that the old Pritchard suffers from some outdated casting (Lewis and Udovick) and cuts, but Jurinac sings beautifully as Ilia (and is in richer if less fresh voice than in the Fritz Busch highlights) and Léopold Simoneau is a stylish but rather mannered Idamante.

The first Colin Davis was a first encounter with this opera for many mozartians. It adopts a strange edition, though. Ryland Davies sings the "soprano" Idamante music transposed, which is a bit shocking, because it changes the intervals in his duet with Ilia, for example. Anyway, his is a decent performance and, even if the results are not exactly stylish, George Shirley as Idomeneo deserves to be "bravo"-ed for deciding to sing the florid version of Fuor’ del mare. The neglected Margherita Rinaldi is lovely as Ilia, but Pauline Tinsley is singing Elektra and not Elettra.

Karl Böhm's studio recording is hardly a number one choice for this opera for a series of reasons. To start with, a strange edition is adopted. Because of the tenor Idamante, Spiegarti non poss'io is preferred, as it should, to S'io non moro and the exquisite aria with violin obbligato, Non temer, amato bene, is included. Although No, la morte and Torna la pace do not appear here, the other aria deleted for the première, D'Oreste, d'Ajacce is retained. However, the most exotic feature is the trimming made all over the place in recitatives and some numbers, such as Fuor del mar. That said, those who admire the sound of the Staatskapelle Dresden are certainly going to find some interest here. The Wunderharfe is at its best, at once grand and flexible. Some of the public scenes are indeed admirable - the lush articulate phrasing from strings perfectly balanced to woodwind. The conductor generally adopts comfortable but plausible tempi, but some key numbers do sound arthritic, such as Non ho colpa. The overall effect is too polite and not really dramatic. As a result, Elettra sounds entirely misplaced in this performance. Her arias sound completely disengaged - and, contrary to one might imagine, Julia Varady is of little help. She does have all the vocal, technical and dramatic requirements to sing the role, but here seems to be sleepwalking. In both her rage arias, she sounds tentative and unaware of what is going on. Even Idol' mio is bloodless and ungracious. In other world is Edith Mathis, in one of her best recorded performances. She is an urgent, stylish and technically accomplished Ilia, offering exemplary renditions of her arias and even showing a passion and sensuousness not usually associated to her in the duet with Idamante. In this role, Peter Schreier delivers a capable and musical performance, but his dry tone and hard-angled phrasing are far from ingratiating. For that matter, Wieslaw Ochmann is also too well-behaved and a bit nasal and too clumsy with passagework to produce the right effect as Idomeneo. He lacks authority and it seems Arbace has been promoted to the leading role. As a matter of fact, Hermann Winkler does sound more imposing than both the other tenors in this recording, although his manners as a Mozartian might be rather dubious.

The same forces had been employed six years before by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt in his EMI studio recording, an uninspired affair redeemed only by the Staatskapelle Dresden superb playing. The edition is surprisingly inclusive for its age, but internal cuts in recitatives and some numbers have been made. Anneliese Rothenberger's soprano is sometimes too vibrant for Mozart and her phrasing could be more precise. Unfortunately, Edda Moser is rather ungaily as Elettra. The only moment when one feels her musically and dramatically connected happens to be D'Oreste, d'Ajacce, but even then it all sounds quite mechanical. As Idamante, Adolf Dallappozza is the only member of the cast remotely connected to the theatrical action. He has a good sense of Mozartian style, but that seems to be more a straight-jacked than a pleasure to him - also his intonation might be suspicious now and then. Nicolai Gedda is surprisingly unconcerned as Idomeneo, ill at ease and imprecise in his phrasing. Peter Schreier is a reliable Arbace. With the exception of Gedda, these singers have little feeling for the Italian language, what makes recitatives an ordeal for most listeners.

It is particularly nice of Luciano Pavarotti to say that Idomeneo is his favourite part. I know it is not fashionable to say that Pavarotti is a very good singer, but...well... he is! And his Idomeneo is lovingly sung and I could agree with him that it is his best recording. He does not tackle the florid Fuor’ del mare, but the simple version is authentic Mozart too. Anyway, nobody sings as beautifully as he does in this role, not to mention that the emotional range is wider than with the other tenors. It was a happy coincidence that he decided to record it in such good circumstances. Although John Pritchard's tempi are a bit on the slow side, the Vienna Philharmonic's glittering and articulate phrasing adds zest to the performance. Also, the chorus brings real sense of theatre to it. Lucia Popp is the most expressive Ilia on discs and is in warm voice. Edita Gruberová outshines all other Elettras, sweetly lyrical in Idol’ mio and powerful in her two arie di furia. Agnes Baltsa is not in the level of her colleagues, only because her voice is not as beautiful as theirs, but is very exciting in the other aspects of her performance. The idea of casting Arbace with a baritone is eccentric, but, considering all the odds, Leo Nucci is quite sucessful - it is quite strained, but the voice is noble and the coloratura is efficient.

Predictably, Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording is revelatory. It is a fantastic performance where everything comes into frame. He plays the score exactly as it was heard in the Munich première, but, if you buy the complementary disc, you get everything you need - the music cut before the première and the Vienna Idamante tenor music. In its days, Idomeneo was considered a poignant dramatic experience, a music capable of "freezing someone under the midday sun", as a contemporary reviewer said. The Harnoncourt is the performance that makes that happen. Rachel Yakar is not a lovely Ilia, but is dramatically concerned. It is a pity that she is in her "explosive" mood, shouting a bit her top notes. Also, Werner Hollweg’s voice is at its most nasal here, but he copes well with the virtuosistic demands made on him. Felicity Palmer, even in a role high for her voice, is an impressive Elettra. She sounds waspish enough in her first and third arias, delicate in Idol mio and her pianissimo singing in Placido è il mar would melt a heart of stone... Trudeliese Schmidt is the tormented Idamante. Some accuse her of forcing a bit (including her pitch), but she goes straight in the heart of her role, expressing Idamante’s predicament better than most of her more famous rivals. In the complementary disc, Francisco Araiza’s singing as Idamante is of surpassing beauty. His Non temer is the best piece of tenor singing in the Mozartian repertoire I have ever heard. Maybe Harnoncourt should have invited him to sing Idomeneo. Simon Estes is the most impressive oracle in the discography. Sadly, Kurt Equiluz was out of voice for Arbace.

The Metropolitan Opera video of Idomeneo is a complex affair. The circumstances are rather un-Mozartian, but what James Levine did here is an evidence of his talents. The sum is really more than the parts here - his Idomeneo has a real tragic atmosphere, in the classical sense of it. Close to the limits of acceptability in Mozart, he builts a really cathartic experience - Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s staging has a lot to do with it. The cast makes no sense on paper, but works rather well as a team. Ileana Cotrubas was not in her freshest voice, but the generosity and good taste of this great singer help to make her an engaging Ilia. Hildegard Behrens is the very essence of controversial casting. It is the kind of thing we go to the theatre to boo, but takes us by surprise and suddenly we catch ourselves shouting "brava" with full enthusiasm. The purity of her high notes and sheer energy, not to mention involvement with her character, almost make us overlook poor Italian, clumsy phrasing and passaggio problems. I would not listen to it without the images, but it is an exciting and dramatic performance as a whole. Frederica von Stade starts a bit anonimously, but raises wonderfully to a fantastic sacrifice scene - if you are not moved by that, you do not have a heart. Luciano Pavarotti is a noble Idomeneo as always - his phrasing is not as careful as in Vienna, though, especially in Torna la Pace, but he is as expressive as in the studio and interacts beautifully with all his colleagues. John Alexander’s Arbace is interesting, considering his age - but only if you consider that.

James Levine would later record Idomeneo in studio, again with the Metropolitan Opera. His reading of the score has gained in concentration and stylishness while keeping all the dramatic impact. As a matter of fact, the orchestra is in better shape than in the video - and DG's warm spacious and clear recording helps to create the sumptuous atmosphere of this performance. If you want a 100% power Idomeneo which is Mozartian nevertheless, this is your recording. The overripe and overblown choral singing is the only element which may raise an eyebrow, but certainly adds to the excitement of public scenes. As Ilia, Heidi Grant Murphy displays a healthy technically accomplished voice, but the tone could be warmer and the expression more generous. Carol Vaness brings impressive resources to the role of Elettra, with her deluxe soprano - big, creamy and flexible. Sometimes, the vibrato could be under better control, but she is a charismatic performer and always sounds interesting in this difficult role. In one of her best recorded Mozart performances, Cecilia Bartoli is an entirely successful Idamante. Not only is she in superb voice, but also sings with imagination and sensitivity throughout. This is probably the most moving account of the sacrifice scene ever recorded. Plácido Domingo's purity of line eschews any idea of miscasting. The tone is noble, beautiful, rich, firm and powerful. He sings the simpler version of Fuor' del Mare and - most unfortunately - avoids Torna la Pace. His acquaintance with Italian language does make difference in recitatives (which here are given all the time they need), but the tone colour tends to be unvaried. Thomas Hampson is a forceful Arbace, amazingly at ease in the tenor tessitura. Naturally, there is some tension in his singing, but it is used to expressive purposes. Frank Lopardo sings indifferently as the High Priest, but Bryn Terfel is an impressive Oracle.

The Drottningholm video is the exact opposite of the Metropolitan, but, curiously, its sounding so Gluckian makes it effectively dramatic. In any case, you cannot make an Idomeneo with one good tenor (Richard Croft as Idamante) and a decent one (Stuart Kales as Idomeneo). The rest of the cast is simply inacceptable. It is a pity that Arnold Östman, such a skilled Mozartian, who has been sheding so much light into Mozartian repertoire, has been denied really good casts in his Drottningholm theatre.

John Eliot Gardiner's Idomeneo has been warmly received by reviewers in England and in France. He offers beautiful orchestral playing and appropriate tempi throughout. Although there is plenty of purpose in his conducting - well judged tempi and excellent choral singing too - some important moments are underplayed and emotionally tame, such as Ilia’s opening recitative Idol mio and the recitative before Ilia and Idamante’s duet. This may have to do to Gardiner’s sprightly phrasing, which is - true - in keeping with the tragédie lyrique’s influence on Mozart - but this work has exactly the historical importance of taking profit of the French and Italian tradition to create a highly theatrical, dramatic and emotional experience. And this is not always the case with Gardiner’s charming performance. The cast has two major performances - the wonderful Idomeneo of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, inferior to Pavarotti only in beauty of voice and in idiomatic quality, but really superior in coloratura and also more stylish. The other beautiful performance is Sylvia McNair’s Ilia - very delicate and sensitive singing. Unfortunately, Hillevi Martinpelto is so subtle as Elettra that you barely notice she is there. As for Anne Sofie von Otter’s Idamante, beautifully as she sings, I am afraid the results are unconvincing. It lacks real energy and she does not sound boyish for one second.

Colin Davis's second recording is a puzzling performance. His reading of the score has mellowed and the plummy playing of the Bavarian Radio orchestra adds to the overall well-behaved impression. Although Philips has provided natural clear recording, slow tempi plus underarticulated phrasing result in a sense of lack of forward movement. The uninvolved choral singing finally undermines any theatrical feeling this performance could have. Just compare Nettuno s'onori in the also not particularly animated Pritchard recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Viennese performance will sound really energetic. Barbara Hendricks's soprano may not be ideally pure, but her singing is full-toned and consistently lovely and a generalized melancholy is an almost acceptable ersatz for real interpretation. Roberta Alexander's golden-toned Elettra may be the most sensuous in the discography, but but this does not make for the fact that the part is too high for her voice and the resulting problems with pitch. She has her screechy moments too. Suzanne Mentzer is an engaged Idamante, but her singing is effortful and the tone is quite uningratiating. Francisco Araiza is a distinguished Mozartian who knows how to infuse his lines with true sensitivity and stylishness, but the tone is puffed-up, what is particularly harmful for his top register unless when he is singing mezza voce. The result is often unfocused and the tone has its less than glamourous moments. Also, his high lying cadenze are woefully misguided. Uwe Heilmann is an acceptable Arbace, not entirely at ease with his more than reasonable resources. All in all, the most interesting feature of the recording is the adoption of Daniel Heartz's edition, which comprises all the arias composed for Munich, although some are to be found in the appendix. Most interesting of all is the replacement bars for the Ilia's entrance on the sacrifice scene. Instead of the usual comment by Elettra (Oh, qual contrasto...) we get an exciting passage in which Ilia and Idamante dispute to be the sacrificial victime.

Charles Mackerras's recording has received excellent reviews and certainly is one of the best Mozart opera recordings to be released for a long while. The lifelong experience of the Australian conductor shows in every bar of the score. Every expressive, stylish and musical point is taken - this is probably the recording where the beauty of the music of Idomeneo is more evident. Even so, sometimes I miss Harnoncourt's extra panache (and roughness). Also, the recorded sound could be 5% less favourable to singers. The edition is also very comprehensive, including all the big arias and the final ballet. Also, this certainly is the best cast ever given to a Mozart opera recorded with this great Australian conductor. Lisa Milne has a bit of Lucia Popp and a bit of Barbara Hendricks in her fresh voice and is urgent enough - a charming performance. Although Barbara Frittoli's tone lacks repose and focus for Mozart repertoire, she is technically accomplished, stylish and has an amazingly comfortable long range. Also, being a native speaker, she offers a wholly idiomatic waspish Elettra. I've said that Lorraine Hunt's voice is taylor-made for castrato roles and here she offers an unblemished performance of Idamante, sung with sensitivity and avoiding femininity. Although Ian Bostridge's voice is light for the role of Idomeneo, he does have a serviceable low register, which is the key element for a good performance of this role. Also, he sings with authority, sensitivity and stylishness - his Fuor del Mar is a technical display. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is probably the best Arbace in the discography, but he certainly exposes the lightness of his Idomeneo.

Adam Fischer's recording is hard to define. On one hand, those who prefer Mozart played on traditional instruments will delight in the Danish Radio Sinfonietta's rich, flexible and perfectly blended sound. On the other hand, the conductor's fancy for playing with tempo might disturb them. He is always an imaginative conductor and has a particularly good ear for tone colouring, but a backbone is seriously lacking in this performance, as if an individual approach has been set for each number separatedly never to form a whole integrated concept. Hence the difficulty to define the target audience. Henriette Bonde-Hansen's fruity soprano is taylor-made for Ilia, and she sings the part with affection. Raffaella Milanese is probably the lightest-toned Elettra in the discography. Her slightly nervous soprano and her native Italian stands for a dramatic temper, but the truth is she rarely sounds natural with this vocalità, although she seems very much at ease with the (difficult) music she has to sing. Kristina Hammarström's velvety mezzo works beautifully for Idamante, here grant No, la morte. Christian Elsner's rich, focused and pleasant tenor makes him on paper a very good idea for Idomeneo, but a consistently bleached out high register robs him of all spontaneity. This does not prevent him from trying the fioriture in Fuor del mar, but might have something to do with the deletion of the second verse of the prayer to Neptune. His interpretation gravitates around sounding noble and sensitive and his Italian is very good. Taking the role of Arbace, Christian Strehl gives here his best recorded performance, tackling both his arias with bravura and good taste. A fourth CD offers the usually deleted ballet music.

Released as part of the Salzburg Mozart 250th Anniversary Festival in 2006, Roger Norrington's live from the House for Mozart makes a compelling entry in the discography. I felt tempted to write "videography", but the truth is that the visual aspects of this performance are entirely forgettable. Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann's production is ultimately harmless - the settings are reduced to elementary aspects and, except from the amazingly silly idea of having an omnipresent actor playing the part of "Neptune" grimacing to the other members of the cast and the audience, nothing really worth of mention actually happens. As a matter of fact, having the orchestra placed down in a pit dug in the middle of the stage does limit the available space for acting and the cast is usually obliged to take the circuit. I should say that the most bothersome problem of this "clean style" staging is that the important element of monumentality which lies in the core of what opera seria is is entirely absent here. The fact that the sound of the reliable Camerata Salzburg might sound too intimate for the public scenes concurs to that impression. Worse than that, probably because the members of the chorus are kept overbusy, the choral singing is a bit all over the place, lacking clarity and definition. That said, Roger Norrington's lifelong experience guarantees high musical and theatrical standards: he is aware of what is the meaning of the musical elements in the structure of each number and knows how to present them to the audience without any kind of self-conscious interference. This is certainly a performance in which Mozart's ideas come through beautifully. Its purposefulness, transparence, structural clarity are indeed admirable. To make things even better, it is also splendidly cast. Ekaterina Siurina's virginal bell-like soprano soars effortlessly and stylishly. The very lightness of her voice might want some warmth, but this seems to go with the girlish approach to the role of Ilia in this production. On the other hand, although Anja Hartero's rich soprano is not necessarily ear-friendly, she is a capable Elettra, more comfortable floating her voice through the high tessitura of Idol mio and the ensuing solo in Placido è il mar than in her rage arias, when she has to distort her tone for the right effect otherwise achieved through her intense stage presence. The first impression of Magdalena Kozená's Idamante is that her voice is too lovely for a trousers role, but this is soon dispelled by her sensitive and inspired performance, lovely to the ears and touching to the heart. Her recitatives are particularly successful. It is a pity that her costumes and hairstyle do not help to create a masculine impression, but rather make her look bizarre. Finally, Ramón Vargas sings the title role in state of grace. His voice is simply beautiful, his singing is rich and entirely free of constraints, he knows Mozartian style and is always expressive. Even in the florid writing of Fuor del mar, he is always musicianly and spontaneous. Predictably for a tenor used to bel canto, his decorations tend to take him upwards. It is really sad he has not been grant the opportunity to sing Torna la pace. It would have made far more sense than the inclusion of a reduced version of the ballet music for a pointless pantomime for Ilia, Idamante and the chorus. Other curious editorial choice is the deletion of Arbace's first aria and its replacement for his second aria (what makes for an amazing overreaction: the character sounds desperate when he should be concerned at most). From the optional arias, only D'Oreste, d'Ajacce is retained.

IN CONCLUSION: If you want it in modern instruments, go for Levine with Domingo, Vaness and Bartoli. If you want it in period instruments, Harnoncourt is the one to have (don’t forget the complementary disc with Araiza’s exquisite Idamante). A safe buy would be MacKerras all-round satisfying performance, but if you like adventure, the Levine video is a must.

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~Lucio Silla

 

1 - Lella Cuberli (Giunia), Christine Barbaux (Celia), Britt-Marie Aruhn (Cinna), Ann Murray (Cecilio), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Silla), Ad van Baasbank (Aufidio), Choeur et Orchestre du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Sylvain Cambreling

2 - Simone Nold (Giunia), Susanne Elmark (Celia), Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Cinna), Kristina Hammarström (Cecilio), Lothar Odinius (Silla), Jakob Naeslund Madsen (Aufidio), Vocal Group Ars Nova, Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Adam Fischer

3 - Arleen Augér (Giunia), Helen Donath (Celia), Edith Mathis (Cinna), Julia Varady (Cecilio), Peter Schreier (Silla), Werner Krenn (Aufidio), Salzburg Mozarteum, Leopold Hager

4 - Edita Gruberová (Giunia), Dawn Upshaw (Celia), Yvonne Kenny (Cinna), Cecilia Bartoli (Cecilio), Peter Schreier (Silla), Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

5 - Annick Massis (Giunia), Julia Kleiter (Celia), Verónica Cangemi (Cinna), Monica Bacelli (Cecilio), Roberto Saccà (Silla), Stefano Ferrari (Aufidio), Orchestra e coro del Teatro La Fenice, Tomás Netopil

 

Although Leopold Hager's is a traditional view of the score, the performance has nothing ponderous about it: tempi are generally flowing and there is a splendid cast. Arleen Augér is a light-toned, flexible and stylish Giunia, particularly touching in the graveyard scene. Julia Varady is at her best in the castrato role of Cecilio, and having two sopranos as prima donna and primo uomo brings an almost Straussian scintillating quality to their duet. Edith Mathis's energetic singing fits the role of Cinna and, although Peter Schreier's approach is too Germanic, his naturalness in low tessitura is more than compensation. Only Helen Donath could be less soubrettish in the role of Celia, even if her bell-like soprano is pleasant all the way.

 

Nikolaus Harnoncourt also has an excellent cast and offers a theatrical and eloquent performance, eschewing shallow gracefulness and going straight to the heart of the matter. Edita Gruberová is in brilliant form and her forceful divisions grant Giunia more strength of convicion in her strette than we are used to hear. Dawn Upshaw is beguiling as the lighthearted Celia. Her Se lusinghiera speme is delightful. I have to say that this is one of Yvonne Kenny's strongest performances. Although the tone is unmistakably high, she sings so forcefully that it makes us believe she is singing a male role. The young Cecilia Bartoli is an expressive Cecilio and teams splendidly with Gruberová for the fireworks of the act II duet. Peter Schreier is not in good voice and his Italian is very poor, but the role (the title role, believe it or not) is uninteresting. It must be pointed out that the edition adopted here involves extensive cuts, culminating with the deletion of the role of Aufidio.


Adam Fischer is an imaginative conductor who displays a thought-through approach to every number of the score (here trimmed in its recitatives), richly aided by the virtuoso playing of the Danish Radio Sinfonietta, warmly recorded. Some may point out that the conductor's investigations are often illuminating in what regards musical values, but not always so in the dramatic aspects. Because of that, some moments might sound artiffical and inorganic. The chiaroscuro concept of the graveyard scene, exploring extremes of dynamics and tempo, is the perfect example of that. The disconnection between musical and theatrical values is highlighted by the fact that the thoroughly stylish cast may sound oratorio-like and unexciting now and then. Simone Nold's floated delicate lyric soprano takes readily to coloratura, but might lack substance when Giunia's lines get too high and too fast. Kristina Hammaström is a capable and firm-toned if rather blank Cecilio. Similarly, Susanne Elmark fulfills the basic requirements for Celia, even if the results lack variety. On the other hand, Henriette Bonde-Hansen handles Cinna's florid writing with aplomb and animation - and no other Silla in this discography can boast to have a voice as pleasant as Lothar Odinius's, not to mention his Italian is far more spontaneous than Peter Schreier's.

Sylvain Cambreling's performance, in the Brilliant Classics complete edition, is a mere curiosity, recorded in a boxy perspective laden with stage noises. Cambreling offers apt tempi, but nothing overwhelmingly good as to compensate for an uninspired cast. Lella Cuberli is probably the best singer here, creamy-toned if a bit rough in the role of Giunia. Christine Barbaux is sweet-sounding but her style is a bit tacky. Ann Murray is not in her best shape - edgy-toned and her top notes spread a lot. Britt-Marie Aruhn has a rather unsubstantial voice, but adept in coloratura. In her first aria, she sings the most misguided cadenza ever caught by a microphone. Unfortunately, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson was also below his usual excellent standards.

Again the Salzburg Mozart 250th Anniversary Festival has opened the videography of an early opera by the composer. Jürgen Flimm's staging is curiously similar to an early rehearsal in which lots of possibilities are being tried at once- and costumes, sceneries and acting postures are experimented in an inorganic and incomplete way. As a result, we are treated to a sketch of a scenery where all the characters pursue different actions at the same time and public and intimate scenes are all mixed in a not entirely logical way. That said, the director certainly deserves compliments for his ability to coax his singers to act as enthusiastically as they do here. Also, his solution for the finale ultimo's volte-face is most creative if a bit too sudden. Although Annick Massis has a rather faceless and shallow-toned start, she develops steadily to intense and technically exuberant accounts of her showpiece arias in act II and III. Monica Bacelli's warm mezzo-soprano is in very good shape- and she makes sophisticated use of the text and shows imagination throughout. This is probably her best recorded performance. Julia Kleiter seems to be determined to prove she is the leading Mozart soprano of her generation, presenting an all-round perfect golden-toned performance in the role of Celia. Verónica Cangemi's voice is a bit light for the role of Cinna, but she more than compensates that with her energetic singing. Also, she is impressively convincing in this breeches role. Unfortunately, Roberto Saccà's voice has developed a glaring sound and the low tessitura does not help him. In the tiny role of Aufidio, Stefano Ferrari shows potential in this repertoire, displaying clean fioriture in his aria. Tomas Netopil offers an unfussy, strong, stylish performance, obtaining transparent and articulated sounds from his Venitian orchestra. The edition understandably involves extensive cuts in recitative, but unfortunately Cecilio's Ah, se a morir mi chiama and Giunia's Parto, m'affretto have been excised too.

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~Mitridate

1 - Luba Orgonasová (Aspasia), Lilian Watson (Ismene), Ann Murray (Sifare), Jochen Kowalski (Farnace), Bruce Ford (Mitridate), Justin Lavender (Marzio), The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Paul Daniel

2 - Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Aspasia), Lisa Larsson (Ismene), Maria Fontosh (Sifare), Kristina Hammarström (Farnace), Mathias Zachariassen (Mitridate), Anders J. Dahlin (Marzio), Vocal Group Ars Nova, Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Adam Fischer

3 - Arleen Augér (Aspasia), Ileana Cotrubas (Ismene), Edita Gruberová (Sifare), Agnes Baltsa (Farnace), Werner Hollweg (Mitridate), David Kuebler (Marzio), Salzburg Mozarteum, Leopold Hager

4 - Yvonne Kenny (Aspasia), Joan Rodgers (Ismene), Ann Murray (Sifare), Anne Gjevang (Farnace), Gösta Winbergh (Mitridate), Peter Straka (Marzio), Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

5 - Netta Or (Aspasia), Ingela Bohlin (Ismene), Miah Persson (Sifare), Bejun Mehta (Farnace), Richard Croft (Mitridate), Colin Lee (Marzio), Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

6 - Cyndia Sieden (Aspasia), Heidi Grant Murphy (Ismene), Christiane Oelze (Sifare), Vesselina Kasarova (Farnace), Bruce Ford (Mitridate), Toby Spence (Marzio), Camerata Salzburg, Roger Norrington

7 - Natalie Dessay (Aspasia), Sandrine Piau (Ismene), Cecilia Bartoli (Sifare), Brian Azawa (Farnace), Giuseppe Sabbatini (Mitridate), Juan Diego Florez (Marzio), Les Talents Lyriques, Cristophe Rousset

8 - Francine van der Heyden (Aspasia), Johannette Zomer (Ismene), Marijje van Stralen (Sifare), Cécile van de Sant (Farance), Marcel Reijans (Mitridate), Alexei Grigorev (Marzio), Musica ad Rhenum, Jed Wentz

 

Although Leopold Hager's recordings of early Mozart operas have not been famous for their animation, Mitridate has the dubious honour of being the less compelling release in the Salzburg Mozarteum series. The prevailing lack of forward movement and the well-behaved singing make this best of early stage works by Mozart overlong and uninteresting. The part of Aspasia is on the heavy side for Arleen Augér. It is true that this has never prevented this singer from having stunning results (such as in Böhm's Entführung), but here she sounds basically unplugged. Her ease with difficult fioriture is, of course, remarkable as usual. The casting of Edita Gruberová in the soprano castrato role of Sifare makes it still more confusing: there is no doubt about Gruberová's proficiency in opera seria, but hers is a prima donna, not a primo uomo voice. Properly cast as Ismene, Ileana Cotrubas takes advantage of the slower tempi granted by the conductor to produce creamy legatoish phrasing all the way. Farnace is a contralto role, but the fact that Agnes Baltsa is a mezzo does not seem to stand between her and clean stylish phrasing. However, the results are quite tame - and that is a quality one would not associate to a role such as Farnace. Werner Hollweg is untroubled by the impossible writing of the title role, but he is also at his most nasal here. The edition here adopted is complete.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's video is available as a soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's video, a cinematographic shot in the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza adapted from a stage production. It is commendable that the director tried to revive the highly stylized aesthetics of baroque theatre, but the truth is that the whole production shows its age: the lighting is amateurish, the sound effects (steps and objects being thrown to the floor mainly) are annoying and some camera angles are ultimately ludicrous (try Aspasia's Nel grave tormento). Morover, the part of Arbate, governor of Nymphaea, not only was practically deleted from the score, but is also given to a boy (!). Other than that, considering this is a studio recording, there could have been less cuts too. In the end, Harnoncourt's surprisingly unexciting and austere approach would probably make it longer than it does feel. The warm-toned Yvonne Kenny finds the role of Aspasia a bit high and her top register is usually tense and hard. That said, no other soprano in the discography displays her mastery in classical operatic Italian declamation as she does. It is not a matter of simple idiomatic quality, but of balancing the weight of words and the tonal quality as beautifully as she does here. She is more than matched by the admirable Ann Murray, who offers the definitive account of the role of Sifare. She is at her creamiest-toned and most flexible and projects the bold, passionate nature of her character to perfection. With her light but round soprano, Joan Rodgers is a charming Ismene. Gösta Winbergh is an inspired Mitridate. In the discography, tenors tend to be either wanting or exceeding in this role, but Winbergh's tenor is taylor-made for Mitridate. Although he has the necessary heft for this difficult part, the dulcet quality of his voice plus his ability to float mezza voce help him in many a tricky passage. Only Anne Gjevang seems out of her element here. Her contralto is too plummy for a trousers role and her lack of familiarity with Mozartian style shows in the lack of clarity of her phrasing.

It was a clever idea of director Graham Vick to find in the similarly formal Japanese theatre inspiration to shed a new light in opera seria. And this production will look refreshing compared to some German stagings recently transferred to DVD, but it does has more than a splash of bad taste in its plethora of basic colours. Although the Covent Garden orchestra does not offer the last word in Mozartian refinement, conductor Paul Daniel goes straight to the matter and produces a stylish and animated performance. If you insist in modern instruments, this is probably your choice. Luba Orgonasová has the perfect kind of soprano for the part of Aspasia. She sings beautifully and knowingly throughout, if unaffectingly. Ann Murray was fresher-toned in the Harnouncort video, but the years have made her even more eloquent. This is certainly one of her best roles. She is also the singer most attuned to the director's stage concept. The always reliable Lillian Watson eschews all soubrettishness and has a unusually high-profile approach to Ismene. Jochen Kowalski seems to be here the counter-tenor version of Leonie Rysanek - the voice has this smoky sensuous sound and he sings and acts with an intensity that threatens note values and pitch, but you cannot resist his performance, all the same. As Mitridate, Bruce Ford is splendidly heroic without ever forcing Mozartian values. I cannot tell if it is a dramatic point that the only Roman on stage is made to look so quaint. In any case, Justin Lavander is not entirely at ease with his martial florid aria.

Cristophe Rousset's studio recording on period instruments is a most satisfying performance, more energetic than Harnoncourt's, turning a work reputed as static into a compelling dramatic piece. The faster tempi also help to focus the structure of the arias, especially those with florid writing. The role of Aspasia is a bit heavy for Natalie Dessay and this may explain why she is not as pure-toned as she usually is. Still, she has astonishing coloratura, top notes and pianissimi and is incredibly involved dramatically. A beautiful performance. Sandrine Piau is very charming as Ismene and, although her tone is not as rich as Cotrubas’s, for example, she compensates it by her naturality and technical fluency in the very fast tempi chosen by the conductor. In the role of Sifare, Cecilia Bartoli remains a sensitive performer and her coloratura is impressive most of the time, but I am afraid her urge to sound profoundly intense makes her already rattling mezzo sound frankly bizarre. The stage productions had Barbara Frittoli and I believe I would have preferred that. Rousset's idea of casting the part of Farnace with a countertenor is entirely successful, once female altos generally sound timid having to deal with this really low tessitura. Here in the most comfortable part of his voice, Brian Azawa sings beautifully and, even if he does not sound the rebel without a cause Farnace actually is, he does better than anyone else in the discography. He could have better Italian, though. I understand that Giuseppe Sabbatini has sung Mozart before this recording, but even if he avoids some "Italian tenor" mannerisms, the fact is that he is dying to sing Donizetti most of the time. He has the technique and the voice to deal with what Mozart asked of him, but I don’t know if the results are entirely stylish. In the small part of Marzio, Juan Diego Florez sings edgily in a most distressing way. The edition is complete.

Those who find Rousset's too agitated and Harnoncourt's too fussy might enjoy Roger Norrington's sensible tempi. I miss Rousset's more boldly delineated emotional atmosphere and variety, especially in the lyric moments, when the English conductor is a bit insensitive - but am not insensitive to the unobtrusiveness of the Salzburg live performance, recorded in natural hall acoustics. One must mention that minor cuts have been made both in recitatives and numbers (and also inside numbers). In the role of Aspasia, Cyndia Sieden's glittery soprano copes well with the coloratura demands made on her, but her top register is a bit edgy. In spite of the lightness of her voice, she is well contrasted to her Ismene, the rounder-toned Heidi Grant Murphy, in the best performance of her life, dispatching her divisions with aplomb and charm. Although Christiane Oelze here takes the high castrato role, she is the most feminine and vulnerable soprano in the cast and, if she doesn't sound more lovely in her aria d'affetto, I would blame Norrington's disciplinarian tempo. Both she and Sieden give an outstandingly precise account of their duetto to deserved ovation. The casting of Vesselina Kasarova as Farnace grants the role a more positive profile than usual, given the Bulgarian soprano prima donna quality, taking every opportunity to add zest to a role that sits in an uncongenial area of the female voice. As much as in Covent Garden, Bruce Ford sings generously and expressively in the title role, although the large intervals were more smoothly taken back in London. Finally, Toby Spence is a pleasant Marzio.

If one prefers to here Mitridate in a modern recording with traditional instruments, then one cannot go wrong with Adam Fischer's stylish performance, one of the best in his series with the wonderful Danish Radio Sinfonietta. In any case, this is probably the safest choice in the discography - the proceedings may lack the flamboyance of Rousset's recording, but are definitely more animated than Harnoncourt's and more flexible than Norrington's. The editorial choices, involving the inclusion of trumpets and drum to the overture and a lacklustre part for French horn in the cadenza to Lungi da te, may make some eyebrows raise, but they tend not to call attention to themselves. Henriette Bonde-Hansen is a very good Aspasia, the creaminess of her soprano unchallenged by the formidable demands made on her. Lisa Larsson's less glamourous tone fits her spunkier approach to Ismene - and she dispatches her divisions to the manner born. The contralto tessitura seems to have a positive effect on Katarina Hammarström: she is far more dramatically connected here than she was in Fischer's Lucio Silla and Idomeneo, not to mention her registers are expertly knit to each other. Matthias Zachariassen has all the basic elements of a Mitridate. Only some awkwardness in the the role's fearsome intervals stand between him and success. It is a pity that Maria Fontosh is not at ease in the key role of Sifare - the edge in her voice could add to help create the aural image of a soprano castrato, but it ends on making violence to Mozartian poise and prevent her from producing 100% clean fioriture.

Jed Wentz's recording is freshly and animatedly conducted and his orchestra plays with real gusto. This could be a commendable performance if there was not serious pieces of miscasting going on here. To start with, Francine van der Heyden has the wrong voice for Aspasia - it is not particularly lovely and her fioriture is not flashing as it should. This is after all a prima donna role and needs more charisma. Marijje van Stralen's oratorio soprano-like Sifare is even more puzzling - she sounds rather like an Aspasia on valium! On the other hand, Marcel Reijans is a light efficient Mitridate and Johannette Zommer's Ismene is lovely. The only outstanding performance here is, however, Cécile van de Sant, whose voice is impressively suited to the role of Farnace and the absence of register break in such tessitura is truly commendable.

Considering the freakish stagings offered in the Salzburg Mozart 250th Anniversary Festival, Günter Krämer's production of Mitridate could be worse. As it is, he seems at least to have read the libretto and, if he entirely misunderstood it, this is probably a mistake in eligendo. Whenever a director opts for the principle of applying psychology to opera seria, the misfiring is always colossal. So it is here. It is particularly perverse that the edition here adopted was not made entirely in order to fit the duration to modern audience's patience; it also involved adapting the plot to the director's imagination. It is true that Ismene is the less passive character in the plot, but shifting her to the pivotal role in the story and keeping her on stage from second one to the final curtain cannot help being abusive. However, the most detestable feature of this production is making all these characters behave like children (because this would be the only "psychologically acceptable" explanation for their behaviour). That said, unlike almost all other productions from the Mozart 22 series, this one does not offend the eyes and often has visually catchy ideas, such as the elegant use of the colours red and black and the inclined mirror above the stage (no novelty, truth be said). It is particularly sad that Marc Minkowski is the co-author of the so-called Salzburg edition, involving the deletion of many numbers and recitatives and even the alteration of the structure of acts themselves: it is difficult to understand why a conductor who understands this music so completely would allow these aberrant editiorial choices... All in all, Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre still offer the most exciting and theatrical account of this music. Although his tempi are more or less similar to Rousset's (curiously the latter offers Ismene far faster tempi), Minkowski finds more variety in his phrasing and his mastery in accent, rhythms and orchestral effects produce a far more theatrical atmosphere. He also allows his singers more operational space in the arie d'affetto. Netta Or's soprano has a grainy, nasal quality not entirely pleasant to the ears, but that is all to fault in her performance as Aspasia. Other than this, her voice is rich over a wide range, she has very clean coloratura and she sings with involvement and sense of style. She is curiously partnered by the silvery Swedish soprano Miah Persson in the primo uomo role. Hers is on paper the voice of an Ismene, but she compensates that by impressive technical fluency (including perfect trills) and richness of characterisation. Although her voice has not an ounce of androginy, the incisiveness of her phrasing and her animation end on producing a certain boyishness. In any case, she was clearly the audience's favourite - and if you sample her Lungi da te, you will understand why. Having to play the main schemer in a Channel tailleur clinging to her unfaithful man agilely as a leopard (to quote Tosca), Ingela Bohlin still finds the peace of mind to sing Ismene's aria in her straight-toned yet strain-free soprano. Bejun Mehta's dark countertenor works beautifully for Farnace - he sings with energy and imagination, but some of his decoration sounds a bit ungainly. Last but not least, Richard Croft is an interesting Mitridate. His voice is a bit light for the role, but he sings with unfailing technique and stylishness. He also finds a certain vulnerability in his role that makes his final soul-searching more believable.

 

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~Le Nozze di Figaro

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~Il Rè Pastore

 

1 - Lucia Popp (Elisa), Arlene Saunders (Tamiiri), Reri Grist (Aminta), Luigi Alva (Alessandro), Nicola Monti (Agenore), Naples Mozart Orchestra, Dennis Vaughn

2 - Sylvia McNair (Elisa), Iris Vermillion (TTamiri), Angela Maria Blasi (Aminta), Jerry Hadley (Alessandro), Claes Ähnsjö (Agenore), Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner

3 - Eva Mei (Elisa), Inga Nielsen (Tamiri), AAnn Murray (Aminta), Roberto Saccà (Alessandro), Markus Schäffer (Agenore), Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

 

Although this is one of the most charming Mozart earlier works, the discography still needs a reference recording. Denis Vaughn's is strictly for Lucia Popp (singing Elisa) fans, to start with. Neville Marriner's lacks animation. Worse: it is rather stiff - as is the video, which represents a performance in a XVIIIth century private hall (as a matter of fact, the video is quite tacky). Sylvia McNair is a charming Elisa and Angela Maria Blasi is also very convincing as Aminta, but Iris Vermillion is not comfortable with what she has to sing and I am afraid Jerry Hadley is entirely out of his element here. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording is splendidly conducted and has a beautiful pair of lovers in Eva Mei’s bright flexible soprano and Ann Murray’s darker richer voice. Inga Nielsen is a bit heavy as Tamiri and Roberto Saccà, in spite of a not really plasant, is quite reliable.

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~Der Schauspieldirektor

 

1 - Edita Gruberová, Kiri Te Kanawa, UUwe Heilmann, Manfred Jungwirth, Wiener Philharmoniker, John Pritchard

2 - Magda Kalmar, Krisztina Laki, Thomas Hamppson, Harry van der Kamp, Concertgebouw, Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

 

Der Schauspieldirektor is Mozart’s charming little Singspiel making fun of operatic artists (and the impresario, of course). Non of the versions here include the dialogues. John Pritchard's is quite tempting, since it has real divas in the roles of Mme. Herz and Mme. Silberklang. I am afraid, though, that neither of them were very inspired, especially Kiri Te Kanawa, whose lyric soprano is probably not what Mozart had in mind for this kind of florid writing. The conducting is light and animated - the remaining items in the disc are concert arias, beautifully sung by both sopranos.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording is a bit fussy and exaggerated and, although Kalmar and Laki actually sing well, they lack diva quality... And it is curious to find Hampson singing in the tenor role.

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~Die Zauberflöte

 

1 - Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Erika Miklósa (Queen of the Night), Christoph Strehl (Tamino), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Papageno), René Pape (Sarastro), Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

2 - Hilde Güden (Pamina), Wilma Lipp (Queen of the Night), Léopold Simoneau (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Böhme (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

3 - Evelyn Lear (Pamina), Roberta Peters (Queen of the Night), Fritz Wunderlich (Tamino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Papageno), Franz Crass (Sarastro), RIAS-Kammerchor, Berliner Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

4 - Rosa Mannion (Pamina), Natalie Dessay (Queen of the Night), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Reinhard Hagen (Sarastro), Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

5- Margaret Price (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Mikael Melbye (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Leipzig Rundfunkchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, Colin Davis

6 - Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night), Will Hartmann (Tamino), Simon Keenlyside (Papageno), Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

7 - Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Désirée Rancatore (Queen of the Night), Piotr Beczala (Tamino), Detlef Roth (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Orchestre et Choeurs de l'Opéra national de Paris, Iván Fischer

8 - Christiane Oelze (Pamina), Cyndia Sieden (Queen of the Night), Michael Schade (Tamino), Gerald Finlay (Papageno), Harry Peeters (Sarastro), The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

9 - Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Siegfried Jerusalem (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Roland Bracht (Sarastro), Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester und Chor, Bernard Haitink

10 - Barbara Bonney (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Opernhaus Zürichs Chor und Orchester, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

11 - Julia Kleiter (Pamina), Elena Mosuc (Queen of the Night), Cristoph Strehl (Tamino), Ruben Drole (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

12 - Edith Mathis (Pamina), Karin Ott (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Gottfried Hornik (Papageno), José van Dam (Sarastro), Chor der Deutschen Oper, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

13 - Gundula Janowitz (Pamina), Lucia Popp (Queen of the Night), Nicolai Gedda (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Gottlob Frick (Sarastro), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer

14 - Ileana Cotrubas (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Christian Boesch (Papageno), Martti Talvela (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

15 - Kathleen Battle (Pamina), Luciana Serra (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Manfred Hemm (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine

16 - Barbara Hendricks (Pamina), June Anderson (Queen of the Night), Jerry Hadley (Tamino), Thomas Allen (Papageno), Robert Lloyd (Sarastro), Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Charles MacKerras

17 - Kiri Te Kanawa (Pamina), Cheryl Studer (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Olaf Bär (Papageno), Samuel Ramey (Sarastro), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner

18 - Genia Kühmeier (Pamina), Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night), Paul Groves (Tamino), Christian Gerhaher (Papageno), René Pape (Sarastro), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

19 - Dawn Upshaw (Pamina), Beverly Hoch (Queen of the Night), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Tamino), Andreas Schmidt (Papageno), Cornelius Hauptmann (Sarastro), Schütz Choir of London, London Classical Players, Roger Norrington

20 - Anna Christina Biel (Pamina), Birgit Louise Frandsen (Queen of the Night), Stefan Dahlberg (Tamino), Mikael Samuelsson (Papageno), Lászlo Polgár (Sarastro), Drottningholm Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

21 - Barbara Bonney (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Kurt Streit (Tamino), Gilles Cachemaille (Papageno), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Sarastro), Drottningholm Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

22 - Anneliese Rothenberger (Pamina), Edda Moser (Queen of the Night), Peter Schreier (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Bayerischen Staatsopernorchester und chor, Wolfgang Sawallisch

23 - Lucia Popp (Pamina), Edita Gruberová (Queen of the Night), Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Wolfgang Brendel (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Bayerischen Staatsoperorchester und chor, Wolfgang Sawallisch

24 - Pilar Lorengar (Pamina), Cristina Deutekom (Queen of the Night), Stuart Burrows (Tamino), Hermann Prey (Papageno), Martti Talvela (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

25 - Ruth Ziesak (Pamina), Sumi Jo (Queen of the Night), Uwe Heilmann (Tamino), Michael Kraus (Papageno), Kurt Moll (Sarastro), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

26 - Lisa della Casa (Pamina), Erika Köth (Queen of the Night), Léopold Simoneau (Tamino), Walter Berry (Papageno), Kurt Böhme (Sarastro), Wiener Philharmoniker, George Szell

27 - Malin Hartelius (Pamina), Elena Mosuc (Queen of the Night), Piotr Beczala (Tamino), Anton Scharinger (Papageno), Matti Salminen (Sarastro), Opernhaus Zürichs Chor und Orchester, Franz Welser-Möst

 

Die Zauberflöte is a Singspiel made for the popular theatre. It also is a vehicle for Massonic ideals, with quite a proto-Jungian plot. But it is my opinion that it is _essentially_ something closer to pantomime than to a PhD. That is why lighter performances are going to be consistently preferred in this discography.

Although Karl Böhm was a distinguished Mozartian in his days, I could never warm to his approach to Die Zauberflöte. I think that the first recording is too Viennese and the second too Berliner, in the sense that the Decca/Wiener Philharmoniker has a cosy operetta-like atmosphere and the DG/Berliner Philharmoniker sounds like Meistersinger act II. He cannot be accused of heavy orchestral sounds in neither, but his tempi are too considerate for comfort. In the first recording, the more pointed playing, especially in the strings, sounds more stylish than the plummier sound in the second recording. However, voices are too closely recorded in Vienna and no dialogues are offered. On the other hand, the dialogues in the Berlin recording could not be better - the timing is perfect. Both sopranos in Vienna seem to be singing Die Fledermaus. Although their voices are clear and agile, they sound tacky for modern listeners - especially the soubrettish Wilma Lipp. In Berlin, Böhm had more stylish sopranos, who were unfortunately in poor voice. Evelyn Lear, for example, sings Pamina with intelligence and good taste, but the tone is not very glamourous and she seems to be concentrated on producing the notes. It is a pity that Roberta Peters was in such a raw voice and that her intonation has its dubious moments, for she cleverly lets us see that the Queen of the Night is not exactly a good girl in the first aria. When it comes to the Berlin Tamino, there is a performance of legendary status - Fritz Wunderlich in characteristic ardent mood and gleaming voice. Of course, this is singing of the highest level but sometimes one feels he is dying to sing the Preislied. In the older set, Léopold Simoneau never reaches such high levels - he is out of style and has poor German. On the other hand, I prefer Walter Berry’s rich-toned and spontaneous Papageno in Vienna to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s slimmer and more sophisticated singing in the later recording. Both basses in Berlin - Hans Hotter as the Sprecher and Franz Crass as Sarastro - are preferable to the poorly focused Paul Schöffler and the rough Kurt Böhme. This is probably Crass’s best operatic performance. Although he is not a deep bass, his velvety and flexible tones together with his beautiful phrasing makes him a patrician Sarastro. In both recordings, the secondary roles are not ideally cast (with the exception of the Papagenas). The Vienna ladies (with the exception of an immeditaly recognizable Christa Ludwig) are kitsch, but the Berlin ones are not great improvement. Different from most listeners, I think that DG’s decision to invite James King and Martti Talvela for the Armoured Men makes for the heaviest version of that scene ever available.

Live from Salzburg, there is also Georg Szell’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1959, which shares with Böhm some singers. First of all, it is so refreshing to see how conscious a Mozartian Szell was back then. His tempi are zipping, his phrasing is alert and he makes everything he can in order to prevent it to sound cute. However, his forces do not respond consistently - it seems that the musicians under his baton were not prepared to deal with this approach, since there are mismatches between orchestra and soloists and inside the orchestra itself in annoying levels. According to what I understood, this was a prise de rôle for Lisa della Casa - and this is surprising, since it is her best recorded performance of a Mozart opera. Her Pamina is delightful - girlish, sensitive, stylish and animated. Erika Köth is light beyond salvation as the Queen of the Night, but it is amazing how easily she copes with one of the fastest accounts (if not the fastest) of Der Hölle Rache. Léopold Simoneau offers a performance similar to the one he recorded for Böhm - although his Dies Bildnis is really affected - he tends to be more at ease here. Walter Berry is again a fresh and most natural Papageno and he does wonders in dialogue. Kurt Böhme’s Sarastro is short of disastrous, though. Hans Hotter is in yawny voice as the Sprecher, but the ladies, the boys (Wiener Sängerknaben) and the Papagena (Graziella Sciutti) are good. The recorded sound is natural and well balanced.

When the issue is Otto Klemperer’s recording, even if one could complain that the orchestra may sound heavy, I would counterargue: when there is such level of clarity (wonderful woodwind throughout) and forward movement (even when the tempi could be faster), it is really worth while listening. The dialogues would have helped to bring more lightness and their absence is regrettable. Also, more flexible and slimmer strings would have been providencial. The cast is a starry affair and it works wonderfully. Gundula Janowitz’s 100% Mozartian soprano is a delight for the ears, even if, in this first recording of hers, she was a bit shy about interpretation. Another débutante is Lucia Popp, whose incisive singing, rhythmic accuracy, musicianship and intelligence place her right in the top of the list of the good Queens of the Night. Nicolai Gedda was not in his freshest voice when he recorded it, but is consistently expressive and avoids trap no.1 for Tamino: making it sound like a heroic tenor role. Walter Berry’s Papageno is not as spontaneous as in Böhm’s recording, but is still congenial and creative. The three ladies in this recording are no more no less than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Marga Höffgen - and they make a spirited and harmonious team. Lisa Otto is also an excellent Papagena. It is a pity Gottlob Frick was invited for Sarastro - his bass lacks the low notes and the nobility for the role. Also, he was clearly in very poor voice. As in both Böhm sets, the three boys are sang by women sopranos - for unstylish results. The recorded sound could have a bit more focus, although voices are naturally recorded. In a nutshell, a bit on the Beethovenian side, but certainly worth while listening.

It seems that in his 1969 recording, Solti had Meistersinger in mind while he was conducting this Zauberflöte - the cast had also been chosen accordingly. Although the orchestral sound is all right light and the tempi are not necessarily slow (and there is the required clarity), the performance drags. The comedy scenes are particularly ineffective, since there is a superficial cuteness going on without the necessary zest and intelligence to make it work. It should be pointed out, however, that some of the serious episodes benefit from the splendid sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic and full-toned choral singing. Pilar Lorengar's fruity tone will always remain an acquired taste in Mozart. Her artistry is beyond reproach nonetheless: her phrasing is stylish, her vivid response to the text is refreshing and she always has a trick or two in her sleeves for the key moments. Christina Deutekom's impressively full-toned a tempo Queen of the Night certainly deserves all the praises she has received, but her yodelling coloratura is quite exotic. Stuart Burrows is a sensitive rich-voiced Tamino. Unfortunately, his ardour is not always in line with Mozartian style. The most serious victim of Solti's miscalculations, Hermann Prey is a dull Papageno, even in spite of his gorgeous voice and stylishness. The result is too noble and homogeneous. As a compensation, Martti Talvela was in good behaviour and offers his best performance in a Mozart opera. Nobler Sarastros are certainly going to be found elsewhere, but this is an inspired performance, thoroughly sung. The three ladies lack sparkle, but Gerhard Stolze is a marvellous Monostatos. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau also offers a highly intelligent performance as the Sprecher. Finally, the recorded sound could be less favourable to singers.

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1972 recording could be called a safe choice. The tempi are neither fast nor slow, but there is nothing heavy about this performance. Woodwind are nicely prominent, but the strings’ articulation could be clearer and less plummy. There is a good cast too. Although Anneliese Rothenberger has very good ideas throughout, her soprano is not clean enough and the results are not always Mozartian. However, if you believe the Queen of the Night should sound like lightings and thunderbolts, here you find Edda Moser as the most forceful soprano recorded in this role. She hits her high f’s as if she were singing the Immolation Scene, while keeping good control of her coloratura. You’ll find those who consider her to be the best exponent of this role. Unfortunately, there is little contrast between her first and second aria and her triplets in Der Hölle Rache are heavily handled, but few sopranos sing the high staccato passages a tempo as she does in this aria. Peter Schreier offers again his fresh-sounding Tamino, while Walter Berry records his last Papageno, an irresistible impersonation. Kurt Moll is a newcomer to studios as Sarastro. It is already a most satisfying and mature performance. The Tölzer Boys and the Monostatos (Willi Brokmeier) are excellent, but Olivera Miljakovic sounds kitsch as Papagena and Leonore Kirchstein ruins an otherwise strong team of three ladies.

Herbert von Karajan’s second recording is basically the opposite approach to the first one - there the cast was Viennese and the conducting was fast and animated; here the cast is international and the conducting is Viennese. Although the tempi are not necessarily very slow (only in the "serious" moments), the articulation is quite soft and plummy throughout. It is basically a grandiose performance, where spontaneity is not always there, although it is bound to please those who like big orchestral playing. The overture is very sophisticated and puzzling, with dynamics used in a original but artifficial way. Woodwind are clear enough, and some endearing details appear now and then such, as the staccato playing of the double bass in Drei Knäbchen. The recorded sound is a bit eccentric, with big acoustics to the orchestra and a drier one for the singers, recorded in varied levels. I thought that Araiza seemed to be in a more constricted and dimmer perspective than the ladies in the first scene, for example. Edith Mathis is a nervous-toned Pamina who lacks poise and legato in the highest notes, but has notion of Mozartian style. She could be a bit more smiling here and there too. Karin Ott was controversial casting as the Queen of the Night. I think she is the precise example of what Karajan expected of a singer in this role - to be a "machine gun". Although she has the weird habit of singing her coloratura in groups of two notes, she is aptly powerful and hits her high staccato notes with impressive energy - she also fines down her steely tone to some soft notes in the first section of her first aria. Francisco Araiza’s Tamino has the advantage of refined use of dynamics and flexibility and his tone is full and pleasant. He would be a reference Tamino if allowed to sing more intimately - but I understand this is out of the scope of this recording. Gottfried Hornik is a spontaneous Papageno with a good sense of comedy. Even if he had his arias transposed up, José van Dam lacks weight as Sarastro. It still sounds low for his voice and, even if the idea was to make Sarastro nobler, he ends on sounding indifferent. The casting of the ladies involves some weighty vocalism - Anna Tomowa-Sintowa’s non-mozartian soprano sounds particularly bothersome despite all her refinement. Heinz Kruse’s firm voiced characterful Monostatos deserves special mention.

Recorded live at the Felsenreitschule, James Levine's Salzburg video features an imaginative production by Jean-Pierre Ponelle, which however looks its age. Some of the soloists are too mature for their roles as well, especially Pamina and Tamino. Both Ileana Cotrubas and Peter Schreier had by then established reputations as Mozartians, but their singing had lost its smoothness and poise. She often sounds fluttery and he displays too metallic a tone for comfort. As the Queen of the Night, Edita Gruberová offers an immaculate if not entirely hair-raising performance. However, the Strahlen der Sonnen deserved a more Mozartian advocate than Martti Talvela, who sounds uncomfortable with Mozart's sinewy lines and his sense of pitch leaves more than something to be desired. As Papageno, Christian Boesch ends on winning our hearts rather through his animation and artistic generosity than through sheer vocal allure. Finally, the trio of ladies (Edda Moser, Ann Murray and Ingrid Mayr) is truly distinguished. The Vienna Philharmonic offers elegant sonorities throughout, and Levine's unaffected but affecting conducting is light on the ear. Unfortunately, the open air recording involves artifficial sound image and more often than not recessed orchestral sound, if clear enough.

One could rightly say that Bernard Haitink's recording is the right choice if one wants a traditional approach in digital sound. Although the basic atmosphere could make one think of Klemperer or even Colin Davis, Haitink’s basically unfussed and uninflected interpretation, although it does not dazzle, it does not displease anyone either. It benefits from beautiful orchestral playing from the Bavarian Radio orchestra and a very strong team of soloists - it is also spaciously recorded, which fits the performance. Lucia Popp’s Pamina is endearing, sung in warm tone and phrasing arrestingly. Edita Gruberová is again an efficient Queen of the Night, offering impressive coloratura. Few people would suspect how good is Siegfried Jerusalem’s Tamino. He was in particularly fresh voice and sings with disarming naturality. Although Wolfgang Brendel’s voice is really beautiful, his Papagno is a bit phlegmatic. The weakest link in the cast is, however, Roland Brach’s Fafnerian Sarastro.

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s video from Munich repeats some of the cast of Haitink’s CDs, but it is a far less compelling performance as a whole. August Everding's production is not particularly creative, although there is nothing particularly ugly on stage. Endearingly as she sings, Lucia Popp's soprano is a bit heavy two years after her studio recording. Edita Gruberová is not at her best high f-form here, but she has every other weapon a Queen of the Night should have in her command. Francisco Araiza, Wolfgang Brendel and Kurt Moll sing beautifully, but bureaucratically, and Sawallisch’s conducting is a bit lackadaisical.

Although Colin Davis's recording in Dresden is far from being the best in his Mozart series, it has its share of interest. Even if the tempi are not fast (except for a zipping Der Hölle Rache), there is a prevailing lightness and an avoidance of Romanticism, which is quite refreshing, especially for those who like it with a big orchestra. The Staatskapelle Dresden does not let these listeners down - it offers beautiful sounds thoughout, with clear woodwind. The conductor shapes phrases lovingly and ends on convincing even when things could be a bit more animated. Although Margaret Price’s voice was not as light as it used to be, her Pamina is an overwhelming performance. Not only does she take advantage of the extra richness of tone for the more dramatic moments, but also she scales down beautifully whenever necessary. Luciana Serra, however, is an extra light Queen of the Night. Although she has good ideas and impressive coloratura, she sounds rather small-scaled. Later, at the Met, she would offer something more in keeping with her reputation. Although he is not as fresh toned as in the Sawallisch CDs, Peter Schreier is still an exemplary Tamino. A congested top note or two will easily be overlooked considering the tenor’s good taste, stylishness and imagination. At this stage of his career, it is impressive that he was still able to project such boyishness in his interpretation. Michael Melbye is an unsteady Papageno, but Kurt Moll is again a most reliable Sarastro. Also worth of mention are Theo Adam’s stern Sprecher and Marie McLaughlin’s charming First Lady. The Knaben are sang by the boys of the Kreuzchor. The recorded sound is very good. Also, the dialogue (delivered by a group of actors) is absolutely complete.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording is an energetic and characterful performance. Of course, there are the occasional weird things, such as the fussy phrasing in Papageno’s first aria and the slowest possible pace in Bei Männer and the Pamina/Tamino/Sarastro trio. However, the weirdest feature is the air hostess voice narrating the stories instead of the dialogues. The Zürich Opera Orchestra is in great shape and far livelier and clearer in articulation than the Concertgebouw for the Da Ponte operas by the same conductor. The cast is charming - the lovely Barbara Bonney, Edita Gruberová’s accurate articulation for great effect as the Queen of the Night, Hans-Peter Blochwitz’s handsome Tamino (really better here than in William Christie's recording). I am not fond of Anton Scharinger’s heavy Papageno nor of Matti Salminen’s yawny Sarastro, though. There is also an excellent sexy-sounding trio of ladies (Pamela Coburn, Delores Ziegler and Marjana Lipovsek), Thomas Moser as the first man in armour and three excellent boys. Endearing as it is to find Waldemar Kmentt as the first priest, he is effortful in his duet.

[JORDAN]

Neville Marriner’s performance has a light, easy going quality that is truly pleasant. The cast could be as fresh as the conducting, though. Kiri Te Kanawa is rather mature for Pamina and Francisco Araiza was past his Tamino days. Cheryl Studer, however, is an exciting Queen of the Night, albeit one who operates in slower tempi. Olaf Bär is an excellent Papageno and Samuel Ramey compensates his awkward German with firm voiced singing. The recorded sound is excellent.

The video from the Metropolitan Opera House features David Hockney's production, which looks a bit modest for the venue. Moreover, it has not aged very well and may seem amateurish now and then. James Levine is a seasoned Mozartian who never lets the performance sag and knows how to produce the right dramatic effect. Unfortunately, both orchestra and chorus are not entirely up to the task and those used to his Salzburg recording might miss the glamourous forces available there. Secondary roles are not really enticing either, with the notable exception of Heinz Zednik as Monostatos. Kathleen Battle's silvery soprano glitters beautifully through a Mozartian phrase, even if this role ideally requires a lyric soprano, and she is the sexiest Pamina ever recorder. Although her acting is a bit overdone, her gracious figure makes one less severe about her stage presence. Luciana Serra's Queen of the Night went impressively into focus. Her firm metallic voice, incisive delivery and instrumental coloratura are really exciting. Francisco Araiza, however, was not in his freshest voice, but is more varied and concerned than in the video from Munich. Kurt Moll too offers a more interesting performance here and is in particularly strong voice. Manfred Hemm's Papageno is heavy and far from uningratiating. His eupeptic presence may seem refreshing, but it becomes a bit bothersome after some time.

Georg Solti’s second recording of the Magic Flute is a great improvement on the 1969 set. His conducting developed towards a stylish, elegant and inteligent approach. The Vienna Philharmonic is entirely at home, offering fresh, fluent and strong playing. Moreover, the recorded sound has good balance between soloists and the orchestra, allowing for true dialogue between them, especially when woodwind is concerned. Ruth Ziesak is one of the lightest-voiced Paminas on recordings. Her pure tone and unmannered but intelligent performance make hers a youthful affecting performance. Although Sumi Jo is also light-voiced for the Queen of the Night, she handles the brightness of her voice to produce a strong effect. Her rhythmic accuracy, musicianship and impressive virtuoso quality include her in the list of the really impressive exponents of her role. Uwe Heilmann is also youthful and pleasant sounding, although he has his fluttery moments. Michael Kraus is rather rough-voiced as Papageno, but has the necessary earthiness. Kurt Moll is an experienced Sarastro, even if the voice is here a bit on the dry side. Finally, Andreas Schmidt is an effective Sprecher.

Roger Norrington’s recording is generally boycotted by reviewers, but it actually is a performance of some musical interest. The whole premise to the recording was making it the lightest possible, in according to a "pantomime" tradition. However, this is made without resorting to thin orchestral playing. On the contrary, the London Classical Players have a rich sound in which woodwind blend beautifully. Dance rhythms are found in every number of the score and intelligent musical-dramatic effects abound. His adoption for flowing andante could not be better advised and - as a result of it and of the extra clarity (ensured by natural warm recording) - some moments are uniquely satisfying such as Drei Knäbchen hold, schön, jung or the trio of the boys Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen, with wonderful violin effects. When an orchestra "sings" so beautifully, the cast naturally takes second place - especially for none of the singers is particularly memorable. Both sopranos have slightly accented German and light voices. Musicianly as she is, Dawn Upshaw sounds a bit like a promoted Papagena and her voice spreads on the vowel "ee". Although her handling of rhythm in Ach, ich fühl’s is admirable, her singing lacks pathos there. Beverly Hoch is probably the lightest-voiced Queen of the Night in the discography and the tone is not particularly beautiful - the voice sounds a bit elderly, but she turns it into advantage presenting a really nasty character from the start. Her coloratura is competent and she even shows off on vocalizing on the vowel of the text (instead of singing everything on "ah"). Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a most pleasant and boyish Tamino and Andreas Schmidt is wonderfully down-to-earth as Papageno. Unfortunately, Cornelius Hauptmann’s ill-placed voice is not up to Sarastro. Nancy Argenta deserves mention for her lovely 1st Dame and the three boys are marvellously sung by three sopranos who sound perfectly child-like.

Charles Mackerras’s Magic Flute is the gretest success in his seris of Mozart operas. It is a delightful performance entirely in keeping with the light atmosphere of the piece and his cast has some very good performances. Although Barbara Hendricks has nice ideas about Pamina, her voice lacks purity. June Anderson’s voice could be cleaner too, but she is in impressive dramatic mood and seems to be in a fury in her dialogue before Der Hölle Rache. Jerry Hadley is a pleasant fresh-sounding Tamino. Thomas Allen is similarly an unaffected and congenial Papageno. It is a pity that Robert Lloyd was already too rusty of voice when he recorded his Sarastro. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra plays beautifully and his real andante (i.e., not slow) tempo for Ach, ich fühl’s is everything I have always wanted to hear.

Arnold Östman catches wonderfully the spirit of this work, but his CDs have even thinner orchestral sound that the rest of the series, making a full recommendation impossible. He has a stylish and sensitive romantic couple here - Barbara Bonney is an exquisite Pamina and Kurt Streit is a admirable Tamino. Sumi Jo offers a more relaxed performance here than for Solti, which only makes us to notice that her voice remains too light for the Queen of the Night, and Kristinn Sigmundsson is a bit dry-toned as Sarastro. Gilles Cachemaille is a pleasing spontaneous Papageno. I am afraid that, for the first time, I prefer the Drottningholm video to the CDs, probably because the recorded soundthere is richer. Anna Christina Biel is a light girlish Pamina and Stefan Dahlberg is a baritonal flexible Tamino. The Papageno is overfunny and the Queen of the Night is overparted. Lászlo Polgár offers the most interesting performance in the cast - his elegant Sarastro is probably the best example of her singing. It has the nobility and spiritual concentration lacking in many famous portraits. The staging, which tries to reproduce a performance in the XVIIIth century style, is unpretentious and charming exactly because of that.

John-Eliot Gardiner’s performance lacks conviction, although his tempi are very correct and the phrasing is aptly articulate. Again, his chorus is excellent, but the cast has only two notable performances: Christiane Oelze’s sensitive and delicate Pamina and Gerald Finlay’s funny and charming Papageno. The pretty-toned Cyndia Sieden, one of the lightest Queen of the Nights in recordings, is tested by the fast tempi. Michael Schade is a drier and less expressive version of Peter Schreier and Harry Peeters is indifferent as Sarastro. The video is difficult to recommend. It is a semi-staged performance at the Concertgebouw. That means that there is very little space to act in since the orchestra occupies most of the stage. The ideas are creative, but makes very little sense in video.

The Magic Flute was William Christie’s first Mozartian venture and his knowledge of baroque conventions was quite useful in the sense of creating transparent textures, but there is a prevailing softness and struggle for elegance that end on making everything sound quite the same. There is something fussy about tempi and phrasing too - many numbers sound slower than usually done today, such as Papageno’s Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja, which seems pointless in this pace. I dislike the way Christie interpretates some passage as being recitatives, with a kind of ad libitum approach, which ruins the rhythmic fluency of many moments. The cadenza for the three ladies in the opening number is a also a turn off and Mozart was wise on cutting it. The most pleasing soloist is Rosa Mannion, displaying a warm creamy voice and imagination. Natalie Dessay is light voiced as the Queen of the Night and there is a velvety quality in her tone that prevents her from sounding evil at all. Hans-Peter Blochwitz and Anton Scharinger are quite consistent with what they did for Harnoncourt, although the former is in slightly less bright voice and the later displays a somewhat richer tone. Last but not least, Reinhard Hagen is a reliable dark-toned Sarastro.

The DVD from the Opéra de Paris features Benno Besson's everything-at-the-same-time production involving XVIIIthe century-like painted cardboard sceneries and machinery together with pseudo-Asian costumes mixed with suit-and-tie outfits and some incredibly anti-climax for climactic scenes such as the Queen of the Night's second aria and the final scene. Iván Fischer's elegant conducting generates transparent, clearly articulated sounds from the house orchestra and, even if tempi could be a bit more animated, the sense of of forward movement is never lost. The young Dorothea Röschmann is a cleanly sung Pamina - she would still develop her interpretation, but the fresher and brighter top register is a reward in itself. Desirée Rancatore is the second Italian Queen of the Night in the discography. She has the right temper for the role, clear coloratura and rhythmical accuracy (even in the fast tempo chosen by the conductor for her second aria), but her high register can be shrill and edgy. Her German deserves some practice and she does look here too young for the role. The also young Piotr Beczala seems more concerned with Mozartian style than he would later be, but he is even less at ease therefore - his intonation is uncertain in Dies Bildnis, his phrasing is a bit clipped and mechanical and his delivery is rather indifferent too. Detlef Roth is a stylish and clear-toned Papageno. His stage performance involves some unfunny comedy gestures and lots of grimacing while singing. Sometimes I had to close my eyes to enjoy his lovely singing. Matti Salminen offers here probably his best Sarastro - his phrasing is cleaner and more flowing than in his previous and subsequent recordings. The recorded sound is natural, but the orchestra could be a bit more richer.

Unfortunately, Colin Davis's second try reveals that vital elements of his performance were the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the recorded sound by Phillips. The Covent Garden orchestra lacks the clear articulation and the rich sound their Dresdner colleagues excel in and the recording is too favourable for singers, what impares clarity throughout. Also, tempi tend to drag a bit compared to the former release - and this is particularly bothersome when one already has to deal with a somewhat recessed orchestral sound. David McVicar's production is overdark and now and then one thinks of limited budget, but his stage direction is according to the reputation of the land of Shakespeare. Also, he has an extraordinarily gifted cast - some of these singers could do straight theatre! Dorothea Röschmann is a highly expressive Pamina, more positive than usual and sung in creamy tone. Some may found that her imaginatively shaded word-pointing is not entirely healthy to legato, though. Diana Damrau leaves a flashing impression as the Queen of the Night. Her vibrant steely sound fits the role as a glove and her high staccato singing is amazingly accurate. She also knows how to highlight the meaning of words and to make coloratura an expressive tool. One thing is certain: nobody on video has mastered the stage aspects of the role as she does. Will Hartman is a controversial Tamino: although his voice is too heroic and uncaressing for the role, he does not sing it as heroic role, shading his tone sensitively in the lighter moments. Simon Keenlyside projects such artlessness and naïveté in his bright firm tone that he ends on being irresistible. Also - he really is a wonderful actor and has the audience on his hand. Despite some unstable and throaty moments, Franz Josef-Selig is a noble Sarastro, displaying a healthy low register and stylish phrasing. Among the secondary roles, Yvonne Howard's dark contralto is worthy of mention.

Although the "Young Sherlock Holmes"-like sceneries might suggest some excitement, Jonathan Miller offers the most austere performance of Die Zauberflöte commited to video. All the magic elements of the plot are replaced by... actually they are replaced by nothing. The story is set in a library and characters more or less dressed in Victorian fashion enter and exit for no specific purpose. Accordingly, stage direction is reduced to minimal. Straightjacked by the proceedings, conductor Franz Welser-Möst seems to be dying to throw some energy into the event, trying to extract the occasional rough sonority from his orchestra, but the prevailing gloominess makes these moments rarer and rarer. As a matter of fact, when tempi do get buoyant, they simply do not fit. Malin Hartelius is a lovely Pamina, floating creamy top notes without any hint of effort throughout. She handles Ach, ich fühl's exquisitely. Elena Mosuc knows how to infuse some nastiness in her Queen of the Night, but all her intelligence, musicianship and good taste do not obliterate the fact that hers is too light a voice for the role. As a result, her high staccato singing sounds recessed and unimpressive. Piotr Beczala's lachrymose and rather unimaginative Tamino belongs to the world of operetta. Matti Salminen's Sarastro is a veteran's performance. Of course, his dark powerful bass still retains some interest, but the truth is Mozart never was his best repertoire. Although Anton Scharinger is a quite mature Papageno, he is surprisingly the only member of the cast who seems to be having fun. His singing is far from smooth, but the necessary spontaneity is all there - and he knows how to have the audience on his side.

Straight from the Salzburg 2006 Mozartian 250th Anniversary Festival, the video from the Grosses Festspielhaus features Riccardo Muti in his only official recording of Die Zauberflöte. Considering this conductor's congeniality with the composer's Italian operas, one would expect some kind of charmingly fast and articulated Rossini-like approach only to be surprised with this overserious and rather ponderous performance. Although the playing from the Vienna Philharmonic is not heavy at all, there is an overall lack of liveliness and profile that makes it all sound like background music. Maybe the large hall acoustics has something to do with the matte sound picture. Pierre Audi's bright, basic-coloured productions could not be more contrasted with the musical aspects of this performance. Unfortunately, the plethora of overcreative ideas does not always look good, especially when they replace elements required in the libretto by shapeless structures with little added-insight. Costumes are inexplicably ugly and unflattering to singers, especially Pamina, made to look frumpy (especially next to a sexy Queen of the Night), and Tamino, whose hairstyle (and hammy acting) makes one think of a porn actor. As a compensation for the high-priced tickets, the audience could concentrate on the excellent cast assembled here. Taking the role of Pamina, Genia Kühmeier proves to be the legitimate heiress of the Austrian lyric soprano tradition. Her absolutely pure soprano floats through Mozartian lines with admirable freedom and instrumental quality - and has unexpected reserves of warmth when this is required. Diana Damrau is again a most exciting Queen of the Night, singing her second aria with almost reckless vehemence, not to mention that her acting skills are praiseworthy. As much as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the past, Christian Gerhaher's whole attitude is too sophisticated for Papageno and he tries really seriously too be funny. What is beyond doubt is this artist's good taste and intelligence. René Pape sounds a bit more fluent here than he would be for Abbado and, although his warm round dark bass is always a pleasure to the ears, I still miss clearer articulation in the little angles of his phrasing. A survivor from Muti's performances at La Scala 10 years before, Paul Groves seems to know the right style of singing required by Tamino, but his usual lack of spontaneity here verges on awkwardness and his German seriously needs some training.

In spite of an acknowledged reputation as a Mozartian, Claudio Abbado apparently took a long time to record Mozart's best-loved Singspiel. The occasion happened to be live performances in Modena. Maybe the hunger of Abbadians for this recording created the high expectations which surrounded the release of these discs and the complacent reviews might be a result of that too. An uninformed listener would find a correct and stylish performance - nothing more than that. When Abbado's knowledge of Mozartian phrasing and structure concur to optimal effects, such as in the Queen of the Night's second aria, the results are indeed impressive, but that does not happen as often as it should. To start with, the recorded sound is artifficial in bothersome levels. Sometimes one reminds of those old Karajan recordings in which pianissimo meant "silence" and fortissimo meant "deafness". Also, the slim orchestral sound not closely or warmly recorded does not build the sense of an intimate musical experience. Details are all there, but playing with buttons have more to do with that than natural hall balance. Moreover, the fact that the more delicate orchestral perspective is not allied to really agile tempi gives one the impression that there is something missing to fill in the blanks - listen to Solti's 1990 recording and you'll see that the missing element is the effect of a positive orchestral sound. On the other hand, if you want to use your magnifying glass and delve into the filigree of Mozart's score, just check what either Mackerras or Marriner can do with a chamber orchestra using modern instruments. The cast does not come to great help under these circumstances. The velvety-toned Dorothea Röschmann's word-pointing has come dangerously close to affectation and her voice is developing into something too luxuriant for someone young as Pamina. Erika Miklósa's Queen of the Night is efficient and athletic enough to deal with Abbado's appropriately fast tempi for her arias. As for Cristoph Strehl's Tamino, although the voice itself is proper to this role, his handling of it is rather awkward, making for some strained and ungainly moments. Compared to him, even the fluttery Uwe Heilmann (for Solti) sounds more varied and pleasant. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a dark-toned, elegant and congenial Papageno, while René Pape is a rich-voiced noble Sarastro, although I would have appreciated more crispy phrasing when his bass has to move a bit faster. With the notable exception of Julia Kleiter's sweet-sounding Papagena, the other minor roles are rather ungenerously cast. Since these singers are almost all of them native German speakers, dialogues are generally spontaneous and certainly fluent.

Harnoncourt would return to Zürich to offer a second view on Mozart's magic Singspiel, but the truth is that very little magic remains in a performance that lacks forward-movement and abounds in irritating rallentando and accelerando effects in the general context of ponderous tempi. To make things worse, the orchestral playing is made to sound somewhat drab and untidy and the chorus, undernourished and disgruntled. Rarely has Mozart's music sounded so awkward as in this performance. This perverse boycotting on the score has been extended to the cast, who is often invited to Sprechstimme effects when the pace gets helplessly slow. As an example, the thoroughly lovely Julia Kleiter was convinced to portray Pamina in quite a shewish manner that robs Ach, ich fülh's of any possibility of pathos. Of course, the conductor is right to explain in the booklet that this aria is no Romantic tearjerker and that the score's andante should be respected - but that has nothing to do with draining it of its indisputable touchingness (just listen to Mackerras to see how this should work). Elena Mosuc's Queen of the Night has finally acquired the necessary dramatic flame, unfortunately at the expense of agility. It seems that Cristoph Strehl was not in his best voice when this video was recorded. Apparently, illness had prevented him from singing at the première - and this might explain the strained, stressed and uncomfortable singing one has to put up with here. This is a singer I have seen live in this role in a far larger house and I know his Tamino is far more presentable than this. Ruben Drole's rich-toned Papageno is, on the other hand, a true find. Although his voice has its rough patches, his ability to produce mellifluous mezza-voce is admirable. He also has a most engaging stage presence and handles his dialogues with naturalness. If I am not mistaken, Laszlo Polgár was supposed to be this production's Sarastro and Matti Salminen was a last-minute replacement. It is admirable that this veteran singer still keeps his voice in such good shape, but again Mozart has never been his best suit. I have the impression director Martin Kusej was dying to direct a Russian mob movie, but had to content himself with Die Zauberflöte. I really could not make any sense of his hospital basement, plastic chairs, mineworkers, fencers, you name it. It goes straight up to my list of the most detestable productions of Mozart operas ever commited to video.

IN CONCLUSION: The 1991 Solti is the safe choice- I’d prefer the Mackerras, but his tempi are not exactly traditional.

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