This FLUTE, super-complete in its inclusion of spoken dialogue (2 DVDs, 176 minutes), features a staging by Pierre Audi that is apt to divide viewers. It resembles a children's television show (and may, therefore, have some appeal as family viewing), with its searingly bright colors, playground-like sets heavy on geometric designs, and all manner of wild costumes and props, though the stage is never truly cluttered. Papageno makes his first appearance in a toy car, attended by playful supernumeraries in yellow bird costumes; they resemble something you might see strutting around at the opening of a chicken fast-food restaurant. The three boys travel overhead not in the usual hot-air balloon but in something like a World War I fighter plane. There are some arresting images (such as Sarastro's followers, in mime-like make-up, solemnly marching onto the darkened stage carrying glow sticks) amidst much silliness, and real fire and water are used in the ritual scenes. Whether the production succeeds may depend on whether one comes down on the side of "fanciful" or "garish."
About the musical portion, I find very little to fault, and would have no problem placing this in the very front rank on DVD (the brilliant cinema of the Bergman film should be considered as just that -- a cinematic achievement, not a typical opera DVD). It even holds its own against the best on records. None of the singing is less than acceptable, and most of it is superb. Four singers merit individual mention. Genia Kuhmeier follows on the heels of Dorothea Roeschmann (the heroine of Abbado's recent CD recording) as another stunning modern Pamina, a winsome presence who achieves new heavenly things every time she opens her mouth; she even plays well in close-up. Diana Damrau is a forceful Queen of the Night who scores highly for vocal agility and is genuinely fearsome as she bullies her daughter in the second aria. Christian Gerhaher, as Papageno, must (like all of the male cast members) overcome unfortunate hair extensions; he succeeds with his fine voice and precise musicianship, and some comedic flair. I continue to feel that the role of Sarastro lies a bit low for Rene Pape's maximum comfort; he makes every note, but doesn't "own" the deepest ones the way a Kurt Moll does. Nevertheless, his is a classy, attractive piece of singing, and he has a fine physical presence -- he knows how to get maximum mileage just from standing erect with a dignified mien, slowly walking across the stage, and doing the other kingly things that operatic basses must do.
Conductor Riccardo Muti presides over a brilliant Viennese ensemble, and his reading is elegant in its lines, rich and healthy in its sonority, and traditional to a fault (unlike his long-time rival Abbado, he has not been influenced by the rise of historically-informed performance practices in music of this vintage). He does not seem to see the FLUTE as a conductor's opera to the degree that he does, say, DON GIOVANNI, where one is more conscious throughout of his ordering hand and the personality he imposes. Here, he generally is content to set mainstream tempi and elicit smooth, blended, well-judged orchestral playing that "lights" what the singers are doing more than it draws attention to the pit. In other words, for much of the performance (a gorgeous overture and a few brightly blazing choral and scene-ending climaxes aside), this often-fiery conductor is in a decidedly supportive, even self-effacing mode. As a reading of this type, it is done on a high level. A very small orchestral detail that begs for an approving mention: Papageno's bells have rarely sounded as enchanting as they do here.
The conductor and some of the singers discuss the opera (in English, Italian or German, with subtitles, depending on the speaker's country of origin) in a mini-documentary, which also gives us tantalizing glimpses of a piano rehearsal. One only wishes this ran longer.
If Decca's entire "Salzburg 22" series of Mozart operas approaches the standard set by this one, then it will be a most prestigious collection. Highly recommended.