Mozart:  Die Zauberfl–te
Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Tamino), Karl Christian Kohn, bass (Sarastro), Anneliese Rothenberger, soprano (Pamina), Erika K–th, soprano (Queen of the Night), Hermann Prey, baritone (Papageno), Ferry Gruber, tenor (Monostatos). Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich Philharmonic, Fritz Rieger, cond.

Golden Melodram GM 5.0027 (3 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 2:56:20

Recently I reviewed a release of a Buenos Aires performance of La Gioconda starring Elena Souliotis, Richard Tucker and Cornell MacNeil. I welcomed it in part for providing the opportunity to hear several fascinating artists in an opera they never recorded commercially.  That is certainly one of the great values of "in-performance" recordings. But another advantage might not be quite so obvious. What, for example, is the potential benefit of acquiring a live performance featuring an artist who also made a commercial recording of the very same work? Here for example is a Golden Melodram issue of a 1964 Munich performance of Mozart's Die Zauberfl–te, starring Fritz Wunderlich, Anneliese Rothenberger, and Hermann Prey. All of these distinguished artists made fine commercial recordings (although not with each other) of great Mozart's singspiel. If one owns these recordings, why invest in yet another Magic Flute?

That is a perfectly reasonable question. I have long treasured Wunderlich's contribution to the DGG Magic Flute, ably conducted by Karl B–hm. In fact I have long considered Wunderlich's Tamino the finest on records. I still hold that opinion, but now I would place the Munich Zauberfl–te far above Wunderlich's excellent DGG recording.

In The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera Roland Graeme comments that on the DGG recording: "“Fritz Wunderlich sings beautifully if a bit impersonally as Tamino." I would give anything to hear such "impersonal" singing today. But I must admit that there is a world of difference between Wunderlich's Tamino as represented in the DGG recording and the Munich performance, which, by the way, took place just a month later.  It seems the presence of the Munich audience inspires Wunderlich to give a performance of extraordinary commitment and dramatic involvement. All one need do is compare Tamino's opening lines as delivered in the two recordings. It is in the Munich performance that Wunderlich truly conveys Tamino's desperation as he attempts to avoid the clutches of the pursuing monster.

Wunderlich's rendition of the ensuing portrait aria is far more ardent in the Munich performance and (a brief moment of slightly wayward pitch aside) every bit as vocally immaculate as the DGG recording.  Wunderlich maintains the beauty of tone, precise diction, and seamless legato that is essential for Mozart, all the while creating a passionate flesh and blood character out of Tamino -- no small feat. In short, Wunderlich's Munich Tamino is a masterful performance by an incomparable talent who was taken from us all too soon. His contribution alone makes this set worthy of purchase.

But there is much more to enjoy. Anneliese Rothenberger's Munich Pamina is also an improvement over her fine 1972 EMI recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch. As with Wunderlich, the Munich audience seems to inspire Rothenberger to give a performance of far greater involvement and dramatic incisiveness. Rothenberger makes Pamina's despairing aria "Ach, ich fühl's" and her subsequent near-suicide almost unbearably moving.  Rothenberger is in absolutely radiant voice, and she certainly benefits from the in-house recording, far more complementary to her rather quick vibrato than is the EMI recording. This is a treasurable performance, certainly among the best Paminas on disc.

Baritone Hermann Prey was probably the finest Papageno of his generation, and he delivers another masterful account here. Things start a bit precariously, with a hurried account of the Bird-Catcher's entrance aria. But from then on Prey and conductor Fritz Rieger settle down to a performance that allows the great German baritone to make all of the musical and dramatic points. The "Bei M”nnern" duet with Pamina is gorgeous, the aria "“Ein M”dchen" full of life and charm, and the final scene, where Papageno contemplates suicide, quite moving. It is also a delight to hear the Munich audience's response to Prey's expert and spirited delivery of the spoken dialogue. It is clear that both performer and audience are having a grand time.

Erika K–th's bright soprano and technical facility in coloratura serve her well as the Queen of the Night. She also does a splendid job of differentiating between the seemingly wronged mother of the opera's First Act and the vengeful character of the Second. Indeed, K–th and Rieger's collaboration in "Der H–lle Rache" is absolutely hair-raising.

Least impressive among the soloists is the Sarastro of Karl Christian Kohn. The voice is basically attractive. But Kohn lacks both the authority in the lower register and the expansive breath control necessary to convey the High Priest's magisterial grandeur. I will say that the Munich audience responds ecstatically to Kohn's rendition of "In diesen heilgen Hallen," for reasons I am unable to discern.

Tenor Ferry Gruber is appropriately menacing as the villain Monostatos. The contributions of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Munich Philharmonic Orchestra are superb, as is the work of the (unnamed) principal flutist. Conductor Fritz Rieger leads a performance very much in the central European tradition. Tempos are, for the most part on the moderate side, and the orchestral and choral sonorities radiate an autumnal glow. Not, perhaps, a rendition to cheer advocates of authentic performances (whatever that means), but a loving and, to my ears, convincing account of a great score.

The recorded sound is superb, virtually the equivalent of a studio recording, albeit in mono. With a more distinguished Sarastro, this Munich Zauberfl–te might have emerged as my clear all-time favorite recording of this opera. As it is, this Golden Melodram release will maintain a treasured place in my collection.

K.M. (Aug. 2001)