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The Scrivener: Sheer Delight

Brian Barratt tells of a recorded performances, guaranteed to bring sheer delight, of Mozart's great opera The Magic Flute.

This is the fifth article in a series on this wonderful ever-enchanting masterpiece. To read the preceding articles please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page.

And do visit Brian’s engaging Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Notes on Mozart's 'The Magic Flute', Part 5

Ask ten people which is the 'best' version of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte, 'The Magic Flute', and you'll get ten different answers. In this article, all I can do is to comment on my personal preferences, leaving readers free to explore, discuss, agree, or disagree.

For sheer wonder and moments of bliss, I listen to the recording made in 1964 at Kingsway Hall, London, with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. The list of singers is remarkable.

Königin der Nacht, Queen of the Night, is sung by Lucia Popp. I just cannot comprehend how the human voice can reach and retain the high notes she handles in the fearsome aria 'Der Hölle Rache', 'Hell's Vengeance'.

Tamino is sung by Nicolai Gedda, one of the great operatic tenors of the 20th century. We find some of the greatest sopranos in relatively small roles, too.

Sarastro, the High Priest, is sung by Gottlob Frick. His rendering of 'O Isis und Osiris' and 'In diesen heil'gen Hallen', 'Within these sacred walls', send shivers of joy down my spine. The splendid basses of the past who sang these to perfection also include Alexander Kipnis and Wilhelm Hesch.
It is one thing to hear the opera, but to see it is a different kind of experience. We are fortunate to be able to see a variety of perfomances on DVD. I chose two.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recorded a live performance at the Sydney Opera House in 1986, with Richard Bonynge conducting the Australian Opera Chorus and the Elizabethan Sydney Singers. This version was first translated into English and prepared for Welsh National Opera.

Among the singers, two stand out. Yvonne Kenny, the ever delightful Australian soprano with vast international experience, including Covent Garden, plays Pamina, imbuing her words and actions with genuine feeling. Tamino is played by a handsome, young, melodic and articulate American tenor, Gran Wilson. It is strange that, whereas all the other main arias receive audience applause, his graceful rendition of 'This portrait is bewitching fair' is followed by silence.

Of particular appeal, to me, is the stage setting designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle. It is, on first sight, very plain but its doors and windows are skilfully used to take us from place to place as the wandering story proceeds. There are clear allusions to Freemasonry. Three doors are surmounted with the words Nature, Reason, and Wisdom. In the initiation scene, an authentically decorated mat is rolled out on the floor — this is an 18th century forerunner of what is now called the Tracing Board in some Masonic orders. Three tall candlesticks are suitably positioned. Even a couple of the handshakes appear to be authentic.

It is important to keep in mind, when watching this performance, that it is 'live on stage' and therefore lacks some of the subtleties one might expect in a version produced firstly as a film.

The other version I have on DVD was directed by the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman in 1975 and chosen by The Criterion Collection as 'the finest screen version of an opera ever produced'. It was also the first television transmission to use stereophonic sound.

Bergman changed the sequence and sometimes the words, but this in no way detracts from the pleasure of seeing and hearing this joyful version. There might not be any clear visual Masonic references but the singing and acting of Birgit Nordin, Queen of the Night, clearly convey a reflection of Empress Maria Theresa's Roman Catholic opposition at the time to Freemasonry.

The entire stage of the Drottningholm Palace theatre was faithfully copied and built in a studio, in the style and colours of Mozart's time. Old style stage mechanics are used for special effects, noise and all. For a brief moment, boys can be seen turning the wind machine, for example. The three boys of the story descend in a hand-cranked steam-operated balloon gondola. This was 1975 — the film is refreshingly free of computerised special effects.

On the other hand, it is a mix of stage, backstage, and studio action, seamlessly blended. We also see the faces of the audience from time to time. The little girl whose face reflects her reactions is Ingmar Bergman's own daughter.

The outstanding singer here is Håkan Hagegård. I saw him in a Schubert recital in Melbourne in 1982, unaware that it was his appearance in this film which had brought him to international attention. He is a cheeky and whimsical Papageno.

I don't know if this version is 'the finest ever', but I do know that the whole thing is a sheer delight.

Berman, Ingmar, director, Trollflöjten/The Magic Flute, Sveriges Radio AB, 1975; The Criterion Collection CD, 2000.
Järvefelt, Göran, director, The Magic Flute, Opera Australia, ABC CD 2006.
EMI, Die Zauberflõte, Klemperer, et al. EMI Classics, CDS 5 55173 2, EMI, London 1964.
Great Singers in Mozart, Prima Voce CD no. NI 7822, Nimbus Records, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK.
Jacobs, A. & Sadie, S., The Opera Guide, Hamish Hamilton, London 1964.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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