Cher Public

A grandeur night for singing

Die Zauberflöte is an opera!”  “No, it’s the first musical comedy!” “Stop!—You’re both right! Die Zauberflöteis an opera and a musical comedy!”

Die Zauberflöte—better known here as The Magic Flute—may not be my favorite Mozart opera (that’s probably Così Fan Tutte), but it’s my favorite one to teach. In fact, it’s the very first work on my syllabus for a class largely focused on Broadway musicals, though of course it isn’t one.

What it is, though, is a remarkable fusion of elements from both traditional opera and something far more populist. Officially, Magic Flute is a Singspiel, alternating song and speech, and performed in the vernacular German—a form understood to have wider general appeal.

But that only begins to capture the miraculous blend of cultural elements here, including that Magic Flute was not a work commissioned by and for nobility, but rather a commercial collaboration with librettist/entrepreneur/performer Emanuel Schikaneder (who wrote the libretto and created the role of Papageno). Fittingly, its premiere was not in a grand opera house, but rather a tavern-like venue: the Theater auf der Wieden, which has now evolved into Vienna’s Volksoper.

Then, of course, there’s Mozart’s music itself, which includes some his most virtuosic, “operatic” vocal writing (at range extremes: the Queen of the Night and Sarastro) alongside the folksier, more playful material suited to Schikaneder, whose skill-set was likely more “tummler” than classical baritone.

Are you still wondering what this has to do with musical theater?

Well, consider the paired lovers in Magic Flute: Pamina and Tamino, and Papagena and Papageno. The first are ardent, romantic, and… well, “operatic.” The latter are charming, flirtatious, funny—and more entertainers than great singers.

Now think about Oklahoma!’s Laurey and Curly, and Ado Annie and Will Parker. See what I mean?

Practically speaking in performance terms, though, straddling this divide is a real challenge. In my experience, few directors and even fewer conductors find a persuasive tone that honors both the grandeur and the lightheartedness Magic Flute needs.

Happily, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s new recording on Deutsche Grammophon is—for his contributions, as well as those of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the RIAS Kammerchor—one of the best yet. Both playing and recorded sound (from a live performance) are exceptionally brilliant and forward.

The maestro, as often, favors fast tempi, and there’s an exceptional sense of charm and rhythmic flexibility in many key passages (also notable in Jory Vinikour’s imaginative continuo playing).

But there’s dramatic thrust where necessary (in both Queen of the Night arias, for example), as well as gravitas (in Sarastro’s music and the overture, especially). Best of all, Nézet-Séguin pulls it all together in a way that’s cohesive and wholly convincing.

If the solo singing were as consistently strong as the orchestral and choral contributions, this would probably be my top choice Magic Flute recording, especially since the dialogue is also compellingly delivered. Alas, the cast proves a more mixed bag.

The strongest performance across the board is the one that seemed oddest—tenor Rolando Villazon as Papageno, which nominally is a baritone or even bass-baritone role. Villazon’s vocal troubles are well documented, but in this lower tessiturathe voice is mostly resonant and healthy, and if he doesn’t really sound like a baritone (any more than Domingo does in his baritone roles), it doesn’t matter so much here.

What does matter is that he truly sings the role, a few passing pitch problems aside, and has vivacity and personality to burn.

Christiane Karg is a lovely and sympathetic Pamina—there are more distinctive and beautiful voices to be heard in the role, but Karg is uncommonly musical and brings a Lieder singer’s acuity to the text. Together, Karg and Villazon deliver what to my mind is the highlight of this set: their performance of “Bei Männern” is very near the top of the list, for both singing and interpretation.

As Papagena—Pamina’s comic counterpart—Regula Mühlemann sparkles in the dialogue; her tone, a fuller soprano than many soubrettes, is pleasing on its own, though not ideally differentiated from Karg. Paul Schweinester is an idiomatic, blessedly un-shticky Monostatos.

Klaus-Florian Vogt’s unusual, choir boy-ish tenor is, in terms of color, a good fit for Tamino, and he’s ardent and musical, but the shifts between straight tone and vibrantly full voice are disconcerting. An incipient wobble suggests that many runs as Parsifal and Tannhäuser are taking their toll.

Albina Shagimuratova is a maddening mix of spectacular moments (the high staccati are stunning) and disappointing one (blurry runs, blasts of too much vibrato).

I prefer a deeper timbre for Sarastro, but Franz-Josef Selig sings very well, and his more lyrical approach suits Nézet-Séguin’s lighter textures. Similarly, Levy Sekgapane and Douglas Williams dispatch their responsibilities as the Priests with aplomb. The three ladies (Johanni van Oostrum, Corinna Scheurle, Claudia Huckle) are characterful and fun; the trio of boys is very different in timbre, as they should be.

Would this recording be a first choice? It would depend on what you want. Luckily, in a luxuriously overcrowded market, there’s a Magic Flute for whatever I happen to be looking for in the moment.

For grandeur—as well as an unbetterable trio of three ladies (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and Marga Höffgen)—I’ll go to Otto Klemperer’s EMI set, which also has a radiantly beautiful Queen of the Night in the young Lucia Popp. Alas, Klemperer’s recording disqualifies itself otherwise by having no dialogue.

When I want to hear a complete performance with all or most of the dialogue—which matters in terms of helping us understand how much this work is a precursor to operetta and popular musical theater—I’ll go to James Levine’s RCA recording.

If I want exquisite, translucent prettiness—something like the aural equivalent of a window filled with Christmas marzipan treats—it’s Arnold Östman’s Drottningholm Magic Flute on L’Oiseau Lyre.

And that’s without even considering individual elements I couldn’t live without. Karl Böhm’s DG recording has Fritz Wunderlich’s meltingly lovely Tamino and Franz Crass’s equally great Sarastro. A Solti radio broadcast showcases my favorite Pamina, the tonally ravishing Elisabeth Grümmer. No one gets to the heart of Pamina like Irmgard Seefried (with Karajan and Furtwängler). And on and on.

One thing I always wish for but have never seen or heard is a Magic Flute that actually casts Papagena and especially Papageno with musical comedy performers with (for him especially) particularly good voices. In the imaginary performance that plays in my head, “”Pa-pa-pa” is sung—and danced!—by Donald O’Connor and Vera-Ellen.

On that theme: before hearing this recording, for a performance that recognizes and reconciles the opera/musical divide, my go-to has been William Christie’s marvelous and too-little known Erato recording. Christie also includes—hallelujah!—the three ladies’ optional cadenza in “Zu hilfe!,” which is almost always omitted. The set also has a wonderful Pamina in Rosa Mannion, whose much faster than average “Ach, ich fühls” is a touchstone for me.

But I would say that this new set is now the other performance that comes closest to realizing that ideal balance. For that reason alone, I’m very glad to have it—and would recommend it heartily to others.