Karl Marx probably did not have the Berliner Philharmoniker in mind when he said that history repeats itself first as tragedy than as farce, but Simon Rattle’s series of remakes of Karajan’s festival opera recordings with glamorous casts puts the trajectory of the famous German orchestra in perspective and makes one wonder about the British conductor’s contribution to its prestigious history.
One would not call Rattle a Mozart conductor, although his live recording of Così Fan Tutte speaks in his favor in this repertoire – but it seems that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a milestone in the career of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s most important conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado. A good friend of mine would say that, if a conductor is not able to conduct a solid performance of this opera, he (or she) is not really apt for German repertoire.
I have heard that Rattle’s Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden have not received positive reviews – and this has been seen as a good example of how one should look forward for his recently announced resignation. As a matter of fact, if one compares this evening’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s discography, this is probably the less coherent and most problematic of all. Some will point out that Karajan’s Berlin recording is far from exemplary – and I would agree – but it has a very clear concept, which the conductor realizes with absolute conviction. Listening to this evening’s performance, I often had the impression that the concept here was basically trying to be different.
When I wrote the last time Bizet’s Carmen was played in the Philharmonie, I said that the performance had been held under “the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found”. If the approach made Bizet’s music more eloquent, I am not sure about its success in Mozart. First of all, as much as I dislike Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s fussy acc. and ritt. in his Zürich recording, there seems to be some method into that, questionable as the results are. This evening, the fact that the rhythmic structure of various numbers were artificially undermined in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto did not seem to make particular sense – some other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) were so hectic that one could not help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. Even when the beat did not show any eccentricity (as in Sarastro’s arias), one felt that the music was not being given enough time to breath and produce its effect. There were moments too, when one could see how effective things could be if they had been left alone - Der Hölle Rache, for instance, was very excitingly played in a very organic manner. As a matter of fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker never ceased to marvel with full-toned, clearly articulated playing. Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen had beautiful effects in the strings. The Rundfunkchor Berlin too sang with impressive accuracy. The excellence of these musicians alone made the performance worth the while, but one would wish nonetheless to see their talents employed to portray a less capricious and more integrated vision of this work.
The cast here assembled is particularly cast in small roles, but features some upcoming singers in main roles. Klemperer did the same when he had, for instance, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp in his recording – and he proved to have bet in the right names. Here one is not so sure. One can see a touch of Kiri Te Kanawa in Kate Royal’s voice, but only now and then. At that point of her career, Dame Kiri was already a flawless Mozart singer, while Royal has too many awkward moments. She does have imagination – her Ach, ich fühl’s (not surprisingly her best moments) was less generically expressive than illustrative of the text. It did catch my attention. Replacing Simone Kermes – an odd choice for the role anyway – Ana Durlovsky proved to be very attentive to the text and to have a warm low register and very clear fioriture, but it is a helplessly light voice for the Queen of the Night, especially in the higher reaches. Benjamin Hulett (Pavol Breslik takes the role of Tamino otherwise) too has a light voice for his part and had his taut moments, but the voice is so pleasant and his sense of style so sure that one tended to take his side. Michael Nagy was an almost ideal Papageno: his baritone is warm, his diction is crystalline, his tonal variety praiseworthy. He masters the art of being funny without overdoing it. Dimitri Ivashchenko finds no difficulty in the writing of Sarastro and fills the hall with dark and focused sounds. Sometimes one misses some nobility of tone and emotional generosity, but maybe I’m spoiled by René Pape’s performance in the Staatsoper.
Some have found the idea of casting the Three Ladies with Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann exaggerated. I haven’t – I found it very exciting to see their combination of their unique vocal and expressive qualities. I am not so sure about the idea using the deleted cadenza for the opening number, though. José Van Dam (Sprecher) does not sound as a veteran singer at all and the three boys from the Aurelius Sängerknaben sang beautifully too.