While many traditional productions of opera these days look sleepy, either on a stage loaded with so much trappings and clutter, and/or looking as though a group of singers got dropped onto stage and left to their own devices, this is truly a most traditional production, in both all its consummate detail and inspired individual touches.
A certain degree of realism and social commentary inform the August Everding production here. Sarastro's temple is set in solemnly austere design of dark brick and wood, which opens out into a silhouetted relief of what could pass for a Greek temple and also imaginatively to a decrepit looking courtyard, where Tamino faces his trial of silence, which gives us a hint that Sarastro's temple may have seen better days. A certain rigid manner about two of Sarastro's priests also tell us as much (and who are denied their brief Act Two duet).
For the incidents of extra magic that occurs in this production, and that Mozart would have been happy with, in contradicting the cold reason of the Enlightenment, the scenes that take place with the courtyard set just mentioned practically dare you to blink, not to miss anything. I do not want to give away any secrets here, except that Wolfgang Brendel, as Papageno, in some of the action here, and everywhere, makes up for a few dry spots vocally, by perfectly natural acting of his part. Costumed as a simple warning man or peasant, he works very well, in interaction with everyone else, in capturing the full humor of his part.
Brighter evocations of nature make up very pleasant backdrop for a couple of scenes during the finale to Act Two, for Pamina and the 3 Boys and for Papageno alone, right before meeting up with Papagena in front of a curtain backdrop of a giant oak. The temple, silhouetted before, opens out, suffused with cool light, as Kurt Moll as Sarastro blesses his two new initiates, Pamina and Tamino.
Lucia Popp, as Pamina, is practically enough reason for giving this Zauberflote the highest possible acclaim and for why this belongs in every serious opera dvd collection. Take for instance her opening of "Ach ich fuhls" in Act Two, which immediately touches the chord or setting for what the entire rest of the aria will be like, which she continues to sing most expressively. Her scene, with the three boys is at least equally sublime in making her way from total despondency, despair to joyful anticipation of meeting Tamino again, consummated by her utterly exquisite "Tamino mein", upon finally greeting him, and radiant demeanor in helping the Tamino of Francisco Ariaza bring the trials of fire and water and their vocal parts to a close.
Her acting matches that of Wolfgang Brendel in their Act One scenes together, in complete believability. Lucia Popp, as many fans already know, was some sixteen years before, a Queen of the Night of classic status on the Otto Klemperer Zauberflote (with all spoken dialogue taken out) for EMI.
Eschewing the least bit of any exaggeration or hindrance to full expressivity of her lines, Edita Gruberova ideally, coolly yet imperiously picks up the mantle Popp had held for the part of the Queen of the Night before, in her musical and dramatic authority in it. Her sidekick trio of three ladies (Pamela Coburn, Cornelia Wulkopf, Daphne Evangelatos) are as fine vocally and musically, among video choices, as you will find. While perfectly seductive enough and costumed to be very attractive to the eye, this trio is perhaps a little less menacing than one other out there.
Francisco Araiza, hardly more than a dutiful presence on stage dramatically, and with slight tendency to pout a few more dramatic lines in his part, warmly and elegantly spins out so many lyric lines here, with so much more colorful command of nuance here than found with Peter Schreier on Sawallisch's cd set or his own much drier, less interesting contribution for James Levine on the Met dvd.
Kurt Moll is the warm voiced Sarastro, his voice rolling effortlessly through "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" and with expressive point both here and the other passages for him. A certain fire about his look or gaze informs even those moments of warmth to convey to Pamina his genuine forbearance in looking out after her. He reappears in the Met Zauberflote dvd eight or nine years later, with undiminished feeling of authority in the part, except for some obvious graying of his vocal prowess and a certain detached manner about him, that had me thinking that all this business with initiates and trials must be incredibly passe or perhaps long by now routinely and terribly de riguer for Sarastro.
Jan-Hendrik Rootering is the ample voiced and authorative Speaker of the Temple, Norbert Orth the entirely black faced and mostly sweet voiced Monostatos, if a little less menacing than one or two others on video by now. Choral forces, including for a properly majestic rendition of and processional up high and stage rear for "O Isis und Osiris", and supporting cast are all in top form.
I am not quite entirely sure, even after reading the annotation in the well informative liner notes (in nice booklet form) of the changing places between Sarastro's aria "O Isis und Osiris" and the brief trio with Pamina, and Tamino joining him,that doing this is right, but at least it is well accounted for in the liner notes and may persuade some viewers.
Wolfgang Sawallisch leads a pleasing middle-of-the-road interpreation of this score, levelheaded in almost all choices of tempo and modern, yet supple enough in its simple pacing of so much, yet plush in orchestral sonorities, even with incidences of doubtful intonation from woodwinds. He is always very supportive of his singers, if not the last word in being imaginative with so much that this score has to offer.
He improves on his earlier analogue set (that has been reissued on cd) in having a more varied cast here, in terms of vocal color, without losing out on issues of diction and meaningful interaction between cast members. An overriding blandness, sterility both scenically and musically to the Levine/Met Zauberflote on dvd, also on DGG, helps to make the Sawallisch here a clearly preferable choice.
Ultimately, as well supported by Sawallisch, the expert staging here, and the contributions of just about every cast member, humanity emerges as the highest and most prevailing order in society, in place of a clerical, monastic, or even a Masonic one. The complexity of Mozart's vision is as well encapsulated here as may also be the case in one or two auteur productions of this great work. Here the charm of Mozart's inspiration endures from start - traffic signals both to left and right from a moon-silhouetted Queen of the Night in alt - to finish.