Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: EMI Great Recordings of the Century
WORKS: Die Zauberflöte
PERFORMER: Gedda, Janowitz, Berry, Popp; Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 67388 2 ADD Reissue (1964)
This latest batch in EMI’s series Great Recordings of the Century contains some classic opera sets which, in freshened-up sound and at mid-price, demand a place on all collectors’ shelves.

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The legendary Giulini/Visconti production of Verdi’s DON CARLO at Covent Garden in 1958 spawned an equally legendary recording 12 years later. Giulini took the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House into the studio, this time with a new generation of rising opera stars. Since then, this recording has been the benchmark by which all others are measured. If you want a more complete version, sung in the original French, then you will have to turn to Abbado on DG. But no conductor matches Giulini in his ability to mould each phrase into a thing of absolute beauty. His interpretation stresses the super-charged family drama at the heart of the epic historical canvas. The five main characters are all sharply etched and their confrontations bubble and explode in a series of psychologically tense duets. Caballé gives one of her finest interpretations on disc, floating her trade-mark pianissimo high notes and casting a dusky shadow over her lower register with a judicious use of chest voice. She is all icy disdain as she dismisses the treacherous Eboli of Shirley Verrett who proceeds to chew up the scenery (and half the stage hands) in a high voltage ‘O don fatale’. Sherrill Milnes, who could occasionally drift into an all-purpose suave Verdi baritone, is here ruthlessly charming as Rodrigo. His interview with the King (Ruggero Raimondi) is at the very epicentre of the drama, teasing out every nuance in the play for power and knowledge. Don Carlo himself is possibly the least interesting of the main characters but the young Plácido Domingo plays him thrillingly as a slightly volatile romantic figure with psychotic tendencies.

Since Fritz Oeser published his critical edition in 1964, recordings of Bizet’s CARMEN have reflected an increasing desire to get back to the original version of the opera. So Beecham’s classic recording has slightly fallen out of favour. However, now that the dust has settled on the scholarly debate, his version seems authentic in a different but more important way. It captures the style, flair, panache and totally French insouciance of the work like no other recording. Victoria de los Angeles, too, is unlike the kind of Carmen we have grown used to. She is neither fire-breathing femme fatale nor sexy minx with hoop ear-rings and fringed shawl, but rather a more subtle and rounded character: by turns teasing, vulnerable, pig-headed and, when cornered, lethal.

The Sawallisch CAPRICCIO captures Schwarzkopf at her most arch, but rather that than the more generalised performances from Gundula Janowitz (DG) and Kiri Te Kanawa (Decca) on the rival versions. The rest of the cast is equally strong and the mono sound is detailed and transparent.

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The truly great FIDELIO recordings allow the monumental drama of tyranny versus freedom to emerge out of the trivial domestic comedy. But one gets the impression that the petty squabbles between Marzelline and Jaquino hold little interest for Klemperer. His performance engages with the heroic nature of the work like no one else’s, but at the expense of the human drama. The two other Klemperer recordings in this batch both communicate on the dramatic as well as the symphonic level. THE MAGIC FLUTE has the best ever Queen of the Night in Lucia Popp as well as a generally strong cast and good sound. THE FLYING DUTCHMAN has a histrionic, if slightly squally Senta in Anja Silja, but Klemperer’s way with the score leaves you suitably wind-swept and sea-lashed.