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'Magic Flute' Revived, Restored, Re-Imagined

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Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, D. Behle,
M. Petersen, D. Schmutzhard, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin,
R. Jacobs

(released on September 14, 2010)
HMC 902068.70 | 2h47

Online score:
Mozart, K. 620
With his groundbreaking series of recordings of the Mozart operas, René Jacobs has forced serious listeners to rethink what they think they know about these most familiar works. Not every one of the recordings has been an unqualified success: Jacobs uses lesser-known singers, presumably for some quality of the voice he admires, or perhaps not to have to confront a star's expectations about how to perform a role. In many of the operas, the casting has worked, although there have been some cases, like Idomeneo, where the value of the recording is mostly musicological. This is not the case with his stellar new recording of the late Mozart Singspiel Die Zauberflöte, for which Jacobs has examined every relevant piece of evidence about the work and come up with a version that redefines the boundaries of the piece's basic identity.

René Jacobs's Mozart:
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Le Nozze di Figaro

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Così fan tutte

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La Clemenza di Tito

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Don Giovanni

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As is to be expected of a historically informed performance recording, Jacobs questions pretty much every assumption about the score. For his other Mozart recordings, he has already referred to some writers in the early 19th century who remembered how the works had been performed under Mozart and others near the time of the premieres: how later conductors stretched out and slowed many of the tempi. Some of these pieces Jacobs returns to their fleet original tempi, but others he stretches out himself. Many of the lengthenings and shortenings and other distortions routinely applied to the score are undone. At the same time, Jacobs himself introduces many other liberties, some of them quite odd but all justified by a close reading of the score and libretto. The singers and players add many embellishments, including an extended cadenza that Mozart wrote for the end of the Three Ladies's first ensemble, later deciding to cut it during rehearsal. I never want to hear the piece again without it, and Jacobs goes one step further by creating similar cadenzas for other pieces.

As noted of the other Jacobs recordings, the sound of the fortepiano in the orchestra, instead of harpsichord, now sounds so natural that it is hard to imagine not having it. Jacobs does himself one better in this recording, giving his excellent fortepianist, Christian Koch, considerable latitude to improvise effects and flourishes to help tell the story. (In his liner essay, Jacobs says that the idea of the recording was to create a "Hörspiel" or radio drama version of the opera, with sound effects to help create visual images in the listener's mind.) He retains all of the spoken dialogue, using the sound effects and considerable vocal freedom for the singers reciting it, almost burlesque in its excess. The singers or the fortepiano make references to other arias, drawing connections between different parts of the opera; an ad hoc discordant orchestra blast signals the arrival of the Queen of the Night; the sound of a blade being unsheathed accompanies references to Pamina's dagger. Jacobs refers to lines from the libretto and comments by Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist, to justify most of his ideas, or simply uses those cases as the basis for adding more such effects.

Musically nearly everything is laudable, beginning at the top of the cast with lovely contributions from the feisty but also angelic Pamina of Marlis Petersen, the clarion yet suave Tamino of Daniel Behle, and the rowdy and not entirely coarse Papageno of Daniel Schmutzhard. Anna-Kristiina Kaappola is a fine Queen of the Night if not an outstanding one, only because of a few minor issues in the top notes. Having to sing an 'eh' vowel on the famous melismas in Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, to be faithful to the text (the word, after all, is "nimmermehr"), instead of the easier modified 'ah' vowel all coloratura sopranos use now, surely does not help. (She does make one very nice alteration to the end of the big aria in Act II.) Marcos Fink has perhaps a smaller voice than what one generally hears for Sarastro these days, but some of those Sarastros do seem to glory a little too much in the breadth of their voices. Not having Sarastro's O Isis und Osiris taken at the usual glacial tempo helps the piece intensely, often getting bogged down into a snooze-fest as it so often does. The superlative Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin produces a consistently incisive, stylistically aware, and impeccably balanced performance of the score.

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