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 Recording of the Week  Sir Simon Rattle conducts Mozart's The Magic Flute

The new Zauberflöte from the Berlin Philharmoniker is a ground-breaker in many respects. Not only was it filmed as the orchestra settled into a new home in Baden-Baden, but it’s also their first live performances of the opera – not to mention Simon Rattle's debut in a work which he admits has terrified him until now!

Pavol Breslik and Michael Nagy
Pavol Breslik and Michael Nagy

So, how did he do? His speeds are generally on the fast side but he allows the singers plenty of expressive leeway, particularly at cadences, and spotlights all sorts of orchestral detail (I loved the bells at the end!). The singers ornament tastefully throughout, and the Ladies get a whole passage of extra music at the end of their first scene.

The production blends traditional elements, such as the fairy-tale forest setting, with modern technology: Pamina’s face is projected onto the backdrop as Tamino sings his first aria, and the birds which he summons appear courtesy of CGI. The darkness of the piece is never underplayed: as director Robert Carsen points out, the piece is on one level about coming to terms with or transcending mortality, and the two suicide attempts as well as the foiled rapes of Pamina are starkly presented indeed. Graves dominate the set in both acts: Papagena initially emerges from one as a Tim Burtonesque corpse-bride, and at one point Papageno has a lovely ‘Yorick’ moment with one of the skulls which are strewn about the stage.

The most controversial aspect is Carsen’s decision to make the Queen and her Ladies Sarastro’s allies and members of The Order: The Big Reveal comes early in Act Two when the priests speaking out in support of Tamino’s initiation turn out to be the Ladies who tested him, and we see Sarastro sharing a passionate, tender kiss with the Queen. Thus the machinations of the women turn out to be just another ‘trial’ designed in collusion with Sarastro, - he’s present, though shadowed, in the scene when she urges Pamina to kill him and she watches lovingly from the sidelines as he sings ‘In diesen heil’gen Halle’. There are points where this interpretation feels strained (the Ladies’ final assault on the Temple with Monostatos no longer really makes sense, and Carsen rather glosses over the libretto’s misogyny), but the reworked Queen/Sarastro relationship becomes a moving portrait of a couple supporting their children through the trails of adolescence.

Simon Rattle
Simon Rattle

One of the strengths of this Flute is the luxury casting of small roles: José van Dam, no less, is the sonorous, eloquent Speaker, Jonathan Lemalu makes a wonderfully authoritative Second Priest and the Three Ladies – Annick Massis, Magdalena Kožená and Nathalie Stutzmann – must be one of the starriest line-ups on record! There are gorgeous performances from the leads, though: Pavol Breslik is the Mozart tenor of dreams and is beautifully matched by Kate Royal’s poised but endearing Pamina (shades of Kate Middleton in her styling – Carsen’s not afraid of making nods to popular culture, having brought E.T. and Harry Potter into his Glyndebourne Rinaldo!) I loved Michael Nagy’s backpacking Papageno, always natural and never playing to the gallery, as well as Regula Mühlemann’s tomboyish Papagena who turns up in shorts and a crop-top with a rucksack full of baby-clothes! Ana Durlovski’s big steely voice easily encompasses the Queen’s stratospheric high notes: she first appears as a cougar in black bandage-dress and heels, kissing Tamino passionately at the end of her aria, though of course this is all presented as part of The Grand Plan in this production. And I mustn’t sign off without mentioning the adorable and pitch-perfect Three Boys: turning up costumed as whoever they’re trying to help in each scene, they’re especially touching when they step in to save Pamina and Papageno.

Do give this a try if you’re after a thought-provoking new perspective on the Flute: the balance of dark and light is masterly, and it sounds and looks gorgeous!

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, K620 (DVD)

Pavol Breslik (Tamino), Kate Royal (Pamina), Dimitry Ivashchenko (Sarastro), Ana Durlovski (Queen of the Night), Michael Nagy (Papageno), José van Dam (Speaker), Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle

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