MOZART: Die Zauberflote (complete opera) = Daniel Behle (Tamino)/ Marlis Peterson (Pamina)/ Daniel Schmutzhard (Papageno)/ Sunhae Im (Papagena)/ Anna-Kristina Kaappola (Queen of the Night)/ Marcos Fink (Sarastro)/ Kurt Azesberger (Monostatos)/ Inga Kalna (soprano)/ Anna Grevelius (mezzo)/ Isabelle Druet (mezzo)/ Konstantine Wolff (bass-baritone)/ RIAS Chamber Choir/ Academie fur Alte Musik Berlin/ Rene Jacobs, conductor – Harmonia mundi 902068.70, (3 CDs box set) 2:47:00 ****:

Oh my, we’re not in Egypt anymore, Pamina! This typically deluxe set of Mozart’s masterpiece (and maybe the best opera ever penned) from Harmonia mundi is definitely going to cause a stir in many quarters, which seems to be exactly what Rene Jacobs likes to do. I always look forward to new releases by him, because agree or disagree, like or dislike—or simply perplexed—he is one of the very few period performers who is willing to go against the grain of period dogmatism and truly investigate, explore, and be willing to take chances, even if the results are controversial.

And this release is sure to be just that.

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The singing here is all first class, even if it is not going to erase memories of your favorites from times past. Sunhae Im, a Jacobs standard, is particularly striking in the loner role of Papagena. I do have a few slight issues with the Queen of the Night, Anna-Kristina Kaappola, as her arias seem a little insecure in a few spots, but nothing she doesn’t recover from, and her vibrato is a tad wide for my taste in this role—others may disagree, though when you are comparing anyone to Lucia Popp and Roberta Peters the contrast will be unfavorable to most. The Academie fur Alte Musik Berlin, if you have been paying attention to Jacobs’s recordings at all, is definitely up to snuff, not as rounded and smooth-sounding as many period bands, but certainly punchy and colorful. The choral work is particularly fine, the choir able to go from soft to loud on a dime and very exciting in their few (but important) appearances. The soundstage can be a little diffuse in places—I notice some detail getting obscured that I was wanting to hear, especially in louder passages, but then again I also hear important filigree and counterpoint that is covered up in other recordings, so perhaps it is just the vicissitudes of the recording process at work. But the clarity of the production is excellent, as is the dynamic range. (Though SACD would have greatly benefited what Jacobs is trying to do here.)

And just what is that? This is where it gets hard. Let me get the sour out of the way first. I could never recommend this release as an only or first recording of the Magic Flute. It is just too idiosyncratic and quite far removed from the norm of standard interpretation, which of course Jacobs disagrees with or he would not have interpreted things the way he does. But there is more to it than that; this is what he calls a “radio” performance, or one designed to be heard on a recorded medium like a CD instead of a copy of a live stage performance or standard studio recording (even though this was done in a studio). As such we get the feeling that this is a unique representation of this opera as a single experience, and that if it was done again things might be different—I am not sure.

One of the difficulties in this version is the sheer length—at two hours and forty minutes, this is a long Flute, and considering the fact that the dialog is given almost complete, along with many sound effects, musical interpolations (from other parts of the opera and from Mozart’s other works as well), added recitative accompaniment on the pianoforte in places, and a general attempt at genuine “acting” of the parts (a great emphasis in this production is the insistence on the brilliance of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto, or “play”) and you have a piece that often feels like there is more talking than singing. While this is no doubt a legitimate concept, and while Jacobs’s erudite and well-thought notes may indeed be right, those wanting to revel in the beauties of Mozart’s music as their primary objective might be let down somewhat. Add to the fact that the tempos are all very “up” (and again Jacobs’s makes a good case for them) it only means that the music goes by even quicker. The second act alone is an hour and forty minutes, and I think that the weakest part of this production occurs in the last 40 minutes when we head into the “trials” section—it seems laggard and not as forceful as it should, the dramatic action too choppy.

So who would profit from this release? Anyone who loves the opera, that’s who! There is so much here that gives one pause for thought and enjoyment that it is practically impossible to list it all. Every page of this opera is highly interpreted and geared towards as realistic a possibility of authentic performance tradition as can possibly be, and I don’t mean just tempi and period instruments. The style of singing, the renewed emphasis on certain vocal syllables, the great care taken to pay attention to Mozart’s own directions for this work in regards to stage instructions and even emotive actions of the characters—all of these (and they are legion) are melded into a coherent whole so that even though there are some things done in this production that are by the conductor’s own admission assumptions and best guesses, it still represents the qualified assessments of a man (Jacobs) who has put a world of thought into this.

In many ways this reminds me of those reconstructionist CDs like “Mass as it might have been performed in 1660 Venice” and such—I don’t think that I do this release disfavor by describing it like that. Though Jacobs indicates in the notes that he was trying to make the non-musical portions interesting enough that listeners would not be tempted to skip from track to track, I think it might be hard resisting that in future. Of course, for me the difficulty is the German—native listeners will have a much better time with this than I did. But even so the enthusiastic acting parts are enough to keep sending me back to the libretto to see what all the fun is about.

This will not offset the Klemperer (EMI) and Bohm (DGG) and Beecham (Nimbus) productions—far from it, as these have earned their classic status over 50, 50, and 80 years and are each magnificent in their own ways. But Jacobs, as we have come to expect, redefines the terms of our listening experience, and the infectious results are hard to resist despite my caveats. Flute lovers will have to have this one.

— Steven Ritter