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Die Zauberflöte is an opera that has never ‘spoken’ to me, so consequently I tend to avoid it. I am, therefore, excited that two new releases challenge my views. Firstly, a film of last year’s Salzburg production. Lydia Steier finds just the right whimsy without either distorting the plot or becoming kitsch, and she keeps a level of darkness to maintain balance. The premise is simple: three boys in a wealthy pre-WWI family are put to bed and their grandfather reads them a story – his narration replaces most of the dialogue – a fantastic tale which is cast from their own family and possessions and in which they gradually become involved. The red-cheeked Tamino is one of their toy soldiers, the Three Ladies are their maids, Papageno is the butcher’s boy and their mother the Queen of the Night. Just as it might tip into cuteness we meet Sarastro and his followers in a shadowy and mysterious steampunk circus where Tamino and Pamina are put through their paces, at one point enduring a bombing raid, a harbinger of horrors to come; and perhaps a reminder of the shambles that we are all embroiled in right now? It is a fabulously realised concept. The Three Boys are not named – just Wiener Sängerknaben – which is pretty criminal as they carry the show indefatigably, involved in every scene and acting their wee woolly socks off. Great to see the audience reward them with a roar of approval at the curtain calls, certainly more than given Matthias Goerne as Sarastro, whose smooth tones just don’t have the required profundity. Mauro Peter is a sweet-voiced Tamino and Christiane Karg a delicate and appealing Pamina. Albina Shagimuratova’s Queen is fully precise and Adam Plachetka’s Papageno refreshingly unannoying. Add Klaus Maria Brandauer’s benevolent Grandfather and Constantinos Carydis’ assured conducting and it’s a hit, though sometimes Carydis does let the tempo lag.

No worries about that on the new recording of Die Zauberflöte by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, captured live at Baden-Baden, who manages to drive at quite a pace but still maintain perfect control and not sound rushed. Shagimuratova repeats her Queen of the Night just as consummately, but sounds a bit wobbly mid-voice here albeit more ferocious – a real spitfire. Karg is again Pamina and as equally dulcet, though I prefer her filmed performance for her greater emotional depth. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, best known for Wagner, is often criticised for sounding like a Tamino, and here he is just that; a good one too, sounding manly rather than laddish. And if Vogt’s casting raised an eyebrow, Rolando Villazón crops up as Papageno – and, much as I feared another clapped-out tenor giving a baritone role a go, I must report that he is rather good! Not overplayed and clownish, but confidently and pleasingly sung and acted. Franz-Josef Selig’s Sarastro here is leaps ahead of Goerne’s in the video, infinitely more resonant.

If you fancy a well-produced, lavish and traditional Mozart experience, old-fashioned in its large scale, then look no further than Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Don Giovanni for Verona. The strong cast – including Carlos Álvarez, Maria José Siri and Irina Lungu – is not the most idiomatic but undeniably vibrant. Lavish costumes and towering sets suit the Arena’s vast stage, so although Don Giovanni wouldn’t be my first choice for the venue, the show has a swashbuckling cinematic sweep.

More interesting – I know, it’s subjective – is Libertà!, conceived conducted by Raphaël Pichon. It is a fascinating premise: Mozart underwent great personal and artistic change from 1782-86 and produced a wealth of vocal material that Pichon has drawn on for this project. He rejects the idea of a compilation album of arias, and instead has created a ‘structured programme, animated by a tension that must be palpable from beginning to end’, so has chosen vocal pieces to create three tableaux, each an ‘aperitif’ of the operas of the Mozart and Da Ponte trilogy. So Figaro takes its subtitle, La folle giornata (The crazy day) and so on. Six singers share the roles with dazzling results. Sabine Devieilhe gets star billing, but to be ungallant I must single out Siobhán Stagg: her soprano is creamy yet pellucid, even- toned and beguiling. Pichon builds the tension and the recorded sound is excellent.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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