MOZART: The Magic Flute
In the Prewar-Two era of shellac discs, the choice of complete Mozart operas was limited to three Glyndebourne Festival productionsDon Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figarosung in Italian, stylishly conducted by Fritz Busch, recorded by HMV, and released stateside by RCA Victor. Casts were polished ensembles but sometimes short on star-power, although some senior Britcrix still cite them as nonpareil. The exception to Glyndebourne's dominance was The Magic Flute, a Walter Legge production recorded in the Beethovensaal of Berlin's old Philharmonie between November 8, 1937, and March 8, 1938nine days altogether. No less an eminence than Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, and his cast featured pretty much the cream of German singers not forced by the Nazis to leave. (What it omitted was virtually all of the spoken dialog that used to bewilder, annoy, and often bore non-German-speaking audiences in the opera house before surtitles were invented.)
This set was issued stateside by RCA Victor in two volumesM/DM541-542, 19 discs in allcurtailed soon after by wartime restrictions on shellac, and by anti-Nazi sentiment. A single copy of it (and of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, the 1936 Bruno Walter/Vienna version) turned up in the dusty loft of a record store I managed between universities in the postwar period, when you couldn't transfer without a year's wait because of crowded campuses. I bought The Flute unheard (but auditioned Das Lied, in fact several times). In automatic sequence, the RCA set had a single cracked discthe very first one, meaning the opening half of the Overture and the ending of Act 1 had to be experienced through the score (the first I ever bought of an opera, still on a shelf across the room). The music proved to be a wonder, a treasure, while the lack of dialog was a Godsend unbeknownst at the time. Flutes came and went, in whole or in part, once I started criticking, but Beecham/Berlin I didn't want to forget, nor was I able.
I can't recall ever seeing an LP reissue (certainly not from RCA, which sent everything in those years from Neil Sedaka to Carl Nielsen). Decades later, EMI issued a CD version which, like the 19 shellac discs in two albums, I bought unheard. That turned out to be, in the immortal coinage of Jimmy Durante, a catastastrofe: cramped, dull, even dingy sounding, with pink-&-pastel cover art as I remember it. I didn't even play all of it, lamenting all the while that I was never again likely to hear what had enchanted me on musically in 1948. But in January of 2001, R.E.B. e-mailed the news that Naxos was reissuing it in their "Great Opera Recordings" series, remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, and would I be interested in reviewing it. Would I ever!
An original sense of discovery cannot, I suppose, be cloned. But the brilliance of Mr. Obert-Thorn's transfers, from 78-rpm discs in pristine condition, has come very close. The acoustics of the Beethovensaal now sound fractionally less reverberant than I remember from live concerts during the same winter that Beecham recorded his Flute, and the singing is slightly more uneven than my first impression more than 50 years ago of an opera I didn't know. Tiana Lemnitz sounds a little matronly for Pamina at the start, although she was only 40 at the time (especially in the duet "Bei M”nnern" with Gerhard Hüsch as Papageno). By "Ach, ich fühl's" in Act 2, however, she has become radiantly young. Hüsch was a superlative lieder singer (I learned, really learned, Schubert's Die sch–ne Müllerin and Winterreise from his 78-discs, and continue to treasure them despite the artistic challenge of his pupil, Fischer-Dieskau, in the latter's very first recording of the Müllerin cycle, with Gerald Moore, on HMV). But as much joy as Papageno gave me, it turns out to have been Mozart's gift rather than the singer's.
There have been Queens of the Night since who've equaled the exactitude of Erna Berger's girlish sound, but none on discs in 1937-38. (Callas turned the role down with the dismissive comment, "She's boring!" when impresario Lawrence Kelly proposed, indeed begged her to sing it in a new production at Dallas.). As Tamino, the Danish tenor Helge Roswaenge was the single non-German principal in Beecham's cast, although his vocal quality and production were quintessentially Deutschmeaning I wish I could hear once more the limpid sound of Frank Lopardo when he was younger. Truth to tell, I've never attended a performance of The Magic Flute that did not at one point or another make me doze off; but when I heard Lopardo's Tamino, not only did he wake me, it was the performance of a lifetime. Gottlob Frick and Kurt Moll have been more imposing Sarastros vocally than Wilhelm Strienz back in 1937-38 (after the magisterial Alexander Kipnis had been forced to emigrate from Berlin), but Strienz's two registers remain loftily impressive.
I loved Heinrich Tessmer's Monostatos back in '48, and find him even more beguiling heredefinitive, indeed. The Papagena, the Speaker, the chorus, even the women pretending to be boys are world-class, irrespective of era. And if Beecham took his lumps for nearly a decade back home for having "collaborated," he set a standard on discs for others to aim at. If the solemnities of Sarastro's realm found him most comfortable, the storied Beecham sense of humor managed to get a smile or few in Act 1 from Furtw”ngler's orchestra.
For me there has never been a more integrated performance of Die Zauberfl–te on discs, musically or vocally. To have it again is like coming home. While there is no libretto, the insert booklet has all of the music by number, title (German only) and singers, plus a superb Keith Anderson synopsis act by act, scene by scene, cue by cue of the "action." And without all that damned dialog by Schikaneder, if may say so.
For the price of just two budget CDs, this is a steal.
R.D. (Jan. 2001)