Mozart - Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) / Les Arts Florissants, Christie Live
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Originating by way of an Aix-En-Provence Festival staging, William Christie and his Arts Florissants bring dramatic flair and musical panache to Mozart's great late Singspiel in equal measure. To begin with, there's a dream cast led by the alluring pairing of Hans Peter Blochwitz as Tamino and Rosa Mannion as Pamina. Anton Scharinger makes for an earthy Papageno, Reinhard Hagen is a commanding Sarastro, whilst Natalie Dessay's input as Queen of the Night comes over in both her showpiece arias as steadfast and electrifying. The casting in depth continues: rare is a Magic Flute that can boast singers of the calibre of Willard White and Linda Kitchen in the relatively small roles of Speaker and Papagena. Then, the uniformly warm vocal blend is homogeneously matched, note for note, with the gut strings and less aggressive winds of Les Arts Florissants. Not that there's anything limp or lacklustre about Christie's brisk tempi; whilst sharp editing maintains the theatrical urgency. The melliflously played "magic" flute and exact keyed glockenspiel input for Papageno's bells are further examples of the care which has gone into this state of the art "authentic" interpretation. With a work like The Magic Flute, recorded choices are voluminous. Neville Marriner with his Academy of St Martins-in-the-Fields on Phillips puts in a brave showing, but William Christie maybe wins out in a thorough interpretation which simultaneously celebrates the opera's joy and mystery. --Duncan Hadfield
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I think the recording is masterful. Semi tone lower or not...
Christie has a good to exceptional cast of singers. There used to be a tradition of casting Tamino to heavier tenors, of near heldentenor type. Blochwitz is the pure Mozartean, lighter typed tenor, and so much for the better: the voice has a quality of silk and sweetness - although, for all its sweetness, it does show traces of unsteadiness in "Dies Bildniss..." (disc 1 track 5). Rosa Mannion I find is an exceptional Pamina, with angelic purity of voice and sweetness in the piano nuance above the stave (Alan Blyth, in his Gramophone's survey of January 2006 also singled out Mannion, on a par with Lisa Della Casa, as his ideal Pamina). To my ears, the reedy tone of "period" woodwinds adds a lot to the plangent character of "Ach ich fühl's". Scharinger has the vocal body and characterization of the great Papagenos. His duets with Mannion are great, the voices blend marvellously together.
Willard White is a fine Speaker, low-voiced and solemn - perhaps a bit too solemn. I find Steven Cole's Monostatos a bit too soft-grained to fully convey the nastiness and menace of the character. Reinhard Hagen as Sarastro has all the required low notes - and possibly not the most interesting characterization, but then Sarastro is a role difficult to nuance out of a generalized solemn kindness. The two priests and two armored men call for no criticism.
I find Christie's 3 kids exceptional in that, on the opposite pole from the solemn, mature, un-childish Tölzer Knabenchor or Wiener Sängerknaben type, they really sound like KIDS - in addition to which they are also pitch-right, a feature rarely encountered with the Austrian adolescents.
The spoken text is appropriately trimmed, that is still fairly complete but reduced just enough to avoid boredom. It is delivered I find without that much dramatic tension (Papageno sounds hardly startled when Tamino first calls him, "He da!") but lots of humor, and Scharinger-Papageno has an irresistible Viennese accent (and the way he rushes his explanatory prattling with Pamina in Act I scene 14, track 9, is a nice theatrical idea, too). In general it is the singers who also speak the text, except for the first and third lady, Speaker, two Priests and two armored men, replaced by German actors- presumably for ensuring a perfect accent. Dessay spent a season in the troupe of the Vienna Opera, so one can expect her German accent to be just fine. The Liverpool-born Rosa Mannion is credited as the speaker of her own role - and I have some doubts about that claim. It is clearly she who speaks the dialogue with Tamino and Papageno before "Ach Ich fühl's" (some peculiarities of accent and diction can be distinctly recognized) but I am not so sure in the long Act I dialog with Papageno and Act II dialog with the Queen of the Night, as, although the timbre is quite similar, I don't hear those peculiarities and find the German accent here well-nigh perfect. Anyway this is a petty detail "for the record" which causes no disturbance whatsoever.
All in all, I wouldn't say this is the "best" Flute (among those I know Solti's 1991 recording is also quite exceptional, and anyway there is not such thing as "the best" in music interpretation) but it is certainly one of those.
Despite the period flavor, tempos are not rushed--Christie is actually slower than usual in the Queen of the Night's music. He does that to give the excellent Natalie Dessay room for more expression. In general Christie is aiming at a natural theatricality that is neither pompous nor archly fairy tale--just as Abbado does, too. The Tamino of Hans Peter Blochwitz is vocally more beautiful than any on disc since Fritz Wunderlich, though Blochwitz is more lyrical than ardent. His Pamina is unknown to me, the modest, sweet-voiced Rosa Mannion. I'm also unaware of the Papageno, Anton Scharinger, who is genial and lively but with no attempt at humor--Christie clearly didn't want a Papageno who clowns around.
It's in several leading roles that Abbado goes ahead of Christie, because Mannion and Scharinger are unimaginative and sometimes only pleasant. Even Dessay, gifted with such a brilliant technique, doesn't sound threatening or particularly angry as the villainess of the piece. Rene Pape is such a commanding Sarastro for Abbado that Reinhard Hagen, doing a serviceable job, sounds disappointing when he tunrs out to have weak, gravelly low notes.
I've owned period Die Zaubeflotes from Norrington and Gardiner as well, and Christie's is the best of the lot, a vital, engaging, natural account.