MOZART: Die Zauberflöte.
Helge Rosewaenge (Tamino), Jarmila Novotná (Pamina), Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (Papageno), Alexander Kipnis (Sarastro), Júlia Osváth (Queen of the Night), William Wernigk (Monostatos), Dora Komarek (Papagena), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini. Live performance, Salzburg Festival, July 0, 1937.
Pristine Audio PACO 145 TT: 145:31 (2 CDs).

Small miracle of restoration. Toscanini made much of his early reputation in the opera house. Yet only a few live performances made it to recording. Pristine has continued its mission of bringing back important performances from the sonic hell of "historical recording" through state-of-the-art digital sorcery. I have heard previous incarnations of this particular recording, and they will drive any but the most determined Toscaninian or the masochistic lover of the sound of cellophane crackle crazy. Pristine has cleaned things up considerably. However, Andrew Rose, an audio Merlin, can do only so much with a low-quality master, and this is one of those. Don't expect a sound comparable to a new Chandos or DG. However, he does manage to take at least ten years off the recording's age.

Because this is indeed a live recording, not a studio one, balances of the singers onstage vary, depending on how close to the microphone people are. Voices fade as characters move away. The worst section in this regard is the priests' chorus "O Isis und Osiris, welche Wonne," where the priests are so far in back of the brass (!) they might as well be sending telegrams. The orchestra, the mighty Vienna Phil under Toscanini (and this surprised me considerably), occasionally plays raggedly. The overture under Toscanini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra from roughly the same period has all of the virtues we associate with Toscanini -- rhythmic precision and excitement, even at the slightly quick speeds the conductor specialized in. The enfilades of sixteenths, distinct as diamonds, drive the allegro here, revving up the musical line. On the other hand, I kept wondering whether the VPO would get through them without stuttering, so much so that the music itself became secondary.

The acting, with certain exceptions, would disgrace a middle-school pageant, but a successful Zauberflöte depends on singing, rather than drama. Helge Roswaenge, a Danish tenor, has more heft than one expects in a Tamino, but as far as I'm concerned, that's all to the good -- a heroic tenor, if not exactly a Heldentenor. Jarmila Novotná makes an affecting Pamina -- probably the most Mozartean of the singers in the cast. Willi Dromgraf-Fassbaender is a routine Papageno who brings off almost none of his comedy bits, mostly due to stale clowning. I realize that Schickaneder, the librettist, left much to be desired as a comedy writer, but I have seen (and heard) very funny Papagenos indeed. Júlia Osváth, only 30 at the time she undertook this performance, hasn't quite the flexibility needed for the Queen of the Night, but she does sing with wonderful, secure tone. William Wernigk, the Monostatos, plays it as if he would prefer to find himself in Siegfried as Mime and indeed specialized in that role. He misses the real menace in the character.

Alexander Kipnis, along with Ezio Pinza the finest basses of their generation, is simply one of the great Sarastros. However, Toscanini sabotages him in "O Isis und Osiris" by setting a tempo so slow that Kipnis can't get out more than two or three words at a time before he needs to breathe. With a voice that heavy anyway, he sounds like a brontosaur trying to escape the tar pits. Fortunately, Toscanini gives him a decent break in "In diesen heil'gen Hallen," which shows you just how fine a singer Kipnis was. And he's the best actor in the cast.
Overall, I consider this an ancillary recording, mainly for the historically curious. Although it won't replace Colin Davis's, Ferenc Fricsay's, or Karl Böhhm's classic accounts, it does indeed preserve a rare live Toscanini opera performance in its current best incarnation and Kipnis in one of his signature roles (sort of).

(March 2020)