OPERA NEWS - Die Zauberflöte
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Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

CD Button Carlyle, Sutherland, Eddy; Lewis, Bowman, Evans, Hotter, Kelly. Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra, Klemperer. Testament SBT2 1504 (2)

Recordings Zauberflote cover 1215

THE BOOKLET COVER for this archival release of a 1962 Covent Garden Zauberflöte depicts a backstage meeting between its conductor, Otto Klemperer, and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. But the recording itself is just a bit less regal than the photo might indicate. Tony Locranto’s excellent booklet note chronicles the disgruntled response of the musical press to the production. Klemperer himself directed the show, ineffectively—the sets and costumes were generally found wanting—but much of the critical rancor, surprisingly, was aimed at the conductor’s music-making. It would be gratifying to report that this release presents evidence for a revised verdict, but instead the discs capture the reasons for the initial disenchantment. 

Although Klemperer was notoriously a “slow” conductor, his solidity of attack usually gave even the most unhurried passages a surefooted rhythmic grounding. This gift asserts itself here in numbers like the Act II Tamino–Pamina–Sarastro trio, in which the finely sprung rhythms suggest the folk-music qualities of Mozart’s invention; the reading here moves into the unearthly realm, mixing high and low, that is this opera’s unique territory. But some of the performance seems to slip from Klemperer’s control. His reading of “Dies Bildnis” is slack and sentimental, two adjectives you wouldn’t generally apply to this conductor. The trials of fire and water are as much an ordeal for the listener as for Tamino and Pamina. Klemperer lays out Tamino’s interview with the Speaker of the Temple in bold, decisive gestures, but the prince’s wanderings before and afterward seem quite aimless; has he gotten lost?

The singers very much represent a “house cast” for Covent Garden in that era. Richard Lewis is a punctilious Tamino, but not an exciting one, with more than a trace of the oratorio singer in his vocal demeanor. Geraint Evans, the Papageno, is clearly a local favorite, overcoming the language barrier to elicit big laughs in the dialogue portions. The role has become the province of lyric baritones who portray the bird-catcher as a lustful youth, but Evans belonged to an older, buffo bass-baritone tradition. (He had already added Falstaff to his repertoire.) The voice reads as distinctly middle-aged; the singing is vivid, vigorous and a bit coarse.

To these ears, Joan Carlyle is the revelation. Her Pamina is always musically poised, her shaping of the Mozartean line exemplary. Moreover, she imbues the character with warmth and pathos; in “Ach, ich fühl’s,” sung with a subtle but unmistakable tear in the voice, she moves the seemingly blithe proceedings toward tragedy.

The oddest element of the cast list is the presence, as the Queen of the Night, of Joan Sutherland, already in the midst of her international career (she had made her Met debut as Lucia just two months earlier). She transposes “O zittre nicht” down a semitone and “Der Hölle Rache” down a whole tone, which lets the high notes sail out with their accustomed brilliance, but renders the opening sections of both arias too low for comfort. Locantro reports that toward the beginning of the first aria, an apparent tempo disagreement between Sutherland and Klemperer left the audience in shock; on disc, this registers more as a bit of rhythmic imprecision on Sutherland’s part, but it’s still a moment ill-becoming a major singer. The triplets in the second aria fly out of control. Sutherland later recorded “O zittre nicht,” but otherwise after this initial outing stayed clear of the role. These discs let us hear why.

David Kelly simply does not sound like a Sarastro; his plain, almost hoarse tone can’t begin to suggest luminous spirituality. Robert Bowman is a roughly voiced Monostasos; in “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden,” he in no way matches the deft playing of the Royal Opera’s piccolo and flute. Jennifer Eddy is a conventionally pert Papagena. But Hans Hotter is as impressive a Speaker as can be found on discs; his warm, house-filling sound and his lieder-singer’s diction lending his utterances an awesome authority.

The work of Carlyle and Hotter, along with flashes of Klemperer’s artistry, may make this release of interest to connoisseurs. But it should be noted: less than two years later, the conductor took to the studio, with entirely different forces, to record a Zauberflöte for EMI. That classic set has a coherence and consistency absent here, and remains the best source for experiencing Klemperer’s valuable insights into the piece. —Fred Cohn

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