Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902068.70)

9 September 2010 3 stars

Jacobs: The Magic FluteAfter the three Da Ponte operas, La Clemenza di Tito and, most recently, Idomeneo, René Jacobs has finally reached Die Zauberflöte, and his approach is typically invigorating, iconoclastic and vividly realised.

Unusually, perhaps, it is what he does with the dialogue that is one of the major talking points. Earlier releases in the series were particularly remarkable for the way they instilled a sense drama into the recitative; Die Zauberflöte, as a German Singspiel, presents very different problems with its text. Schikaneder's dialogue is often heavily cut or omitted entirely on record, but here nearly all the dialogue is reinstated – like Varesco's lengthy recits in Idomeneo. Jacobs cites Wilhelm Seidel in the booklet, who reproaches those who entertain the 'the mistaken belief that Mozart's music is on a superior plane' to Schikaneder's drama. As such, the performance runs to 2h47 and needs a third CD. By contrast, Klemperer's classic (and somewhat more leisurely) account of the score has no dialogue and fits on to two discs and is about half an hour shorter than Jacobs'.

That amounts to a lot of dialogue, but fundamental to Jacob's approach is his aim to present the opera as 'Hörspiel', so it is all delivered with a more gusto than usual, and accompanied with an array of elaborate sound effects. Characters speak over each other and over instrumental introductions to numbers, while the three ladies indulge in occasional Sprechgesang that rather brings to mind Pierrot Lunaire. The fact remains, however, that if one is unenlightened enough not to share such a high opinion of Schikaneder's text, or prefers it when accompanied by Mozart's music, as I fear most people do, then one is unlikely to want to sit through it all on repeated occasions. And while it is delivered in a manner that is admittedly more entertaining than normal, it is not necessarily as amusing as I imagine was intended, or as it would be live in the theatre.

The rather overpowering presence of a fortepiano (played here by Christian Koch) has been a feature of earlier releases, reaching something of a high (or low) point in Idomeneo. And it plays a very prominent role here, too, providing occasional accompaniment to the dialogue but also tinkling away during several of the musical numbers, providing counterpoints, echoes and other elaborations, often filling out textures that Mozart left bare. Mozart, the booklet reminds us, conducted the opera's first performance from the fortepiano, but if there are a few clever touches in the dialogue, the interjections in the numbers strike me as at best superfluous, at worst irritatingly intrusive. It also reflects a strange attitude to Mozart's music as a whole: Jacobs seems to believe that it needs no less spicing up than Schikaneder's dialogue. So if some passages, such as that accompanying Tamino's first entrance, are imbued with a wonderful, vital energy, elsewhere Jacobs pushes and pulls, underlining and emphasising in a way which is somewhat indulgent and mannered. As such, the simple joy one should feel at the start of the Papageno-Papagena duet, for example, is quickly replaced by impatience as the (intially fast) tempo is pulled around and the line fussily enunciated. Such rhythmic flexibility is in stark contrast to Jacobs' doctrinaire attitude towards the basic speeds for numbers, expounded at length in the booklet. Incidentally, while some speeds are on the fast side—those set for the boys robbing them of nobility—on the whole there's nothing we've not already heard on a variety of 'period instrument' performances. 

The quality of the singing is high but, perhaps with the exception of Marlis Peterson's charming Pamina, not especially memorable. Daniel Behle is a lyrical Tamino but sounds constricted at the top of the voice, while Daniel Schmutzhard's affable Papageno sings well but is a touch disappointing in his dialogue: the Viennese accent comes and goes, and there's just not enough charisma to make one want to listen to it all. Marcos Fink is too light-voiced and unsteady as Sarastro (even if Jacobs claims this is an authentic piece of casting) while Anna-Kristiina Kaappola has all the notes as the Queen of the Night but none of the steel and menace in the voice.   

Jacobs' approach is undoubtedly refreshing and, as always, everything is executed with the utmost commitment, not to mention gloriously virtuosic playing from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. But there's a fundamental problem in what seems to be his desire to recreate such a sense of live theatre in a medium that encourages repetition. And it's an aim that fits ill with a three-cd set that, with its cardboard box and lavish booklet, seems to stake a claim to the status of authoritative, 'library' recording. I suspect that attempts to enliven swathes of dialogue will pale on repeated listening, while one's patience with improvisatory flourishes in the music and the micro-managing of tempos is likely to wear thin.

The booklet contains several photos from 2009 performances at Aix-en-Provence on which the recordings were based, and I can't help thinking that Jacobs' ideas would have been better represented if those had been filmed and released on BluRay or DVD.

By Hugo Shirley