Mozart: Die Zauberflöte CD review – a fascinating snapshot of Covent Garden in the 1960s

Carlyle/Lewis/Evans/Sutherland/Kelly/Hotter/Royal Opera/Klemperer
(Testament)

The studio version of The Magic Flute that Otto Klemperer made for EMI in 1964, with a cast including Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp, remains one of the finest ever recorded. Two years earlier, Klemperer had conducted and directed a new staging of the singspiel at the Royal Opera House. The two previous productions there had been sung in English, but this one, though the cast were predominantly Anglophone, was in German. It was not the success his Fidelio the previous season had been; the designs (which were by Georg Eisler, son of the great composer) were much criticised, the singing was thought uneven and the conducting seen as uninvolved, even dull. Yet this mono recording of the opening night, remastered from BBC tapes, shows how much higher vocal expectations must have been half a century ago, for by today’s standards much of it sounds very good indeed.

Klemperer’s conducting is certainly rather staid and heavyweight. We have become used to faster tempi and more transparency in Mozart, and perhaps even some ornaments in the vocal lines. Some passages here are very slow indeed. But there’s an honesty about the performance that’s totally convincing; nothing, you sense, is being done just for superficial effect. Later, in his studio recording, Klemperer would insist on omitting all the dialogue; here it is included, though it sometimes sounds stilted and self-conscious from cast members whose first language was not German, and there is a certain amount of clattery stage noise, too.

There’s no doubting the quality of much of the singing, though. The stars undoubtedly are Richard Lewis as a nicely heroic Tamino, Joan Carlyle as a touching Pamina and Geraint Evans as an irrepressible Papageno. But devotees will want to hear Joan Sutherland in her only appearance as the Queen of Night. She had already sung the roles of First Lady and Pamina at Covent Garden, but the first night of this Zauberflöte was by no means her finest hour; both her arias are transposed down (by a semitone and a tone respectively,) and in the first she and Klemperer seem unable to agree on the tempo. Any disappointment, though, is more than compensated by the contribution of the great Hans Hotter in the relatively small part of the Speaker, to which he brings just as much rich authority as to any Wagnerian role.

For all its imperfections, then, this recording is a snapshot of what a company performance at Covent Garden could be in the 1960s, and its quality is salutary.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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