Mozart‘s opera The Magic Flute (or Die Zauberflöte in the original German) was premiered in Vienna, just two months before the composer’s premature death in 1791. The German libretto was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, the theatre’s director and the very first actor to step into the role of Papageno.
Those unfamiliar with the opera as a whole should at least recognise its most-famous aria: in Act II, the Queen of the Night boasts dizzying vocal heights of repeated high Fs that demonstrate the character’s intimidating presence.
The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, meaning it consists of both music and spoken dialogue, though the latter is often omitted in audio recordings. Of the recordings that exist, and there are many to consider, there are several that stand out as consistent fan favourites. From the mid-20th century, traditional recordings by conductors such as Otto Klemperer (EMI, 1964), Ferenc Fricsay (Deutsche Grammophon, 1955) and Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1964) are blessed with evergreen popularity. Similarly, recordings from the 1990s by William Christie (Erato, 1990), Arnold Östman (L’Oiseau Lyre, 1993) and John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv, 1996) have many Magic Flute enthusiasts reaching for them time and time again.
While each of these older recordings have their merits and remain in demand for good reasons, the list below details the best of the latest recordings, all produced in the 21st century.
What is the plot of Mozart‘s opera The Magic Flute?
When Prince Tamino is rescued from a monster by three ladies, he is given a picture of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of Night, and instantly falls head over heels for her. Unfortunately, the lady of Tamino’s affection is held captive by a sorcerer named Sarastro with his henchman Monostatos. Armed with the eponymous magic flute and a reluctant companion, the bird-catcher Papageno, Tamino sets off on a rescue mission but soon learns that not everything is as it seems… What follows is several trials to prove Tamino’s worth and to reach a happy ending.
The best recordings of Mozart‘s opera The Magic Flute
Will Hartmann, Dorothea Röschmann , Diana Damrau, Franz-Josef Selig, Simon Keenlyside, Ailish Tynan, Adrian Thompson, Thomas Allen; Royal Opera House/Sir Colin Davis, dir. David McVicar
Opus Arte DVD: OA0885D, Blu-ray: OABD7002D (2003)
The highlight of this filmed production is the performance by Simon Keenlyside as Papageno. Critic Max Loppert writes: ‘Simon Keenlyside’s Papageno offers none of the vaudeville high jinks traditionally associated with the role: he brings to its comedy a Pierrot lunaire-like poetry, precisely achieved down to the smallest detail. This Papageno arouses both delight and poignant emotions, and his singing is wonderfully strong and true in style.’
Also noteworthy is Diana Damrau’s ‘sharply intelligent’ interpretation of the Queen of the Night. See her performing the character’s famous aria below.
Rebecca Evans, Elizabeth Vidal, Majella Cullagh, Sarah Fox, Diana Montague, Lesley Garrett, Barry Banks, Simon Keenlyside, John Tomlinson; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Chandos CHAN 3121 (2005)
‘Articulation is light and buoyant, tempos mobile yet never driven or inflexible, textures sharp and transparent. In no other recording I know are you so aware of the originality of Mozart’s scoring, whether in the austere, hieratic colouring (trombones and basset-horns to the fore) of the music for Sarastro and the priests at the start of Act II, the manic glitter of Monostatos’s aria or the ethereal, other-worldly sonorities in the music for the Three Boys.’ Richard Wigmore
Daniel Behle, Marlis Petersen, Daniel Schmutzhard, Sunhae Im, Marcos Fink, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Kurt Azesberger, Inga Kalna, Konstantin Wolff; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902068.70 (2010)
‘Anyone tempted to programme the remote-control to skip over the dialogue in this Zauberflöte will rue the day. For this is a total experience, perfectly tailored for private listening. René Jacobs thinks of it as a Hörspiel: it’s a play to be heard – and I don’t know a recorded Zauberflöte more thrillingly alive with fantasy, profoundly musical imagination, real magic, and real fun too.’ Hilary Finch
Maximilian Schmitt, Christina Landshamer, Thomas Oliemans, Nina Lejderman, Brindley Sherratt, Íride Martínez; Soloists of the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund; Chorus of Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Marc Albrecht; dir. Simon McBurney
Opus Arte DVD: OA 1122D; Blu-ray: OABD 7133D (2014)
‘Freshness of vision, emotional openness, genuine ensemble theatricality, a robustly physical sense of adventure humorous and serious (but never portentous) by turns, and an underlying directorial trust in Mozart’s music: these qualities stay with me most strongly after two viewings of this DVD, among the most rewarding experiences of the opera I’ve had in nearly five decades of Magic Flute encounters.’ Max Loppert
Three great recordings of arias from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute
Juan Diego Flórez (tenor); Orchestra La Scintilla/Riccardo Minasi
Sony Classical 88985430862 (2017)
‘What does stand out about the disc, an exhilarating listening experience almost throughout its absurdly short duration, is the mature warmth of musico-dramatic approach informing both singing and characterisation.’ Max Loppert
Regula Mühlemann (soprano); Basel Chamber Orchestra/Umberto Bendetti Michelangeli
Sony Classical 19439752372 (2020)
‘Her voice is gently luminous and true in pitch, her singing of a scale ideal for this acoustic – yet she can pack an emotional punch.’ George Hall
Natalie Dessay (soprano); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Louis Langrée
Virgin VC 5 45447 2 (2000)
‘The evenness, agility and diamantine precision of her coloratura are phenomenal. But she never relies merely on technical virtuosity. Dessay brings a hard, imperious edge to the Queen of the Night’s arias – with a real glint of venom in ‘Der Hölle Rache’’. Richard Wigmore
Find out more about Mozart and his works here
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