Mozart is, along with Beethoven, the most recognizable composer in the long and complex history of European symphonic music. While he has over six hundred compositions, he is probably best remembered for his operas, which ranged from loud and bombastic to intricate and innovative. Among his most popular operas is Die Zauberflote, better known as The Magic Flute. Aside from having several well known pieces, The Magic Flute was a work designed to appeal to a broad range of audiences, so it's got something for everyone, both musically and in terms of story.
Most people don't realize it, but what we now consider to be "classical music" (a term for a specific period that has been broadened to encompass many disparate styles, composers, and times) had a symbiotic relationship with the populist music of the day. Composers would take musical themes and ideas from the music being made for the masses and would incorporate them into their works. The Magic Flute is perhaps the perfect example of this. Mozart, who by 1791 had become famous throughout Europe, was approached by longtime friend Emanuel Schikaneder with the idea of doing an opera, in the form of a Singspiel (a form that includes both singing and spoken words), that would play at the theater where Shickaneder's troupe had a residency. Shickaneder himself wrote the libretto and played Papagino.
The story revolves around the lust for power by the Queen of the Night. Her daughter, Pamina, is abducted by Sarastro, the priest of Isis and Osiris. His goal is to separate Pamina from the corrupting influence of her mother. The Queen enlists the help of a prince, Tamino, to go in search of Pamina. Tamino, helped by the birdcatcher Papageno, goes on a journey both physical and mental, and must decide whether or not he should ally himself with Sarastro or the Queen of the Night. There are several threads running through The Magic Flute, including Tamino's wrestling with the philosophy of Sarastro, Papageno's search for a wife (a Papagena, as he calls it), and that of the Queen and her minions. The whole thing is filled with adventure (the work opens with Tamino being threatened by a giant serpent), and would have been very exciting for audiences of the period (and, for those who get into the spirit of it, to audiences of today). The libretto is at its best when Papageno is on stage (not surprising, given the author wrote the part for himself), full of wit and sexual innuendo.
The music, of course, is the real draw. Mozart was a master at melody and understood the popular forms of the day, but never shied away from branching out and challenging himself and his audience. The best known piece from The Magic Flute is one of Mozart's most impressive compositions, the Queen of the Night (actually two arias that are generally referred to together). This technically complex piece is always a show stopper whenever it's performed, and required a level of range and dexterity never before attempted. Even to this day, the Queen of the Night is considered one of the most difficult roles in any opera.
But all of the music in The Magic Flute is memorable, with intricacies to be discovered upon repeated listens. The immediacy of the work is never in doubt, and indeed, The Magic Flute is one of the most often performed operas, because it remains so accessible to modern audiences, based on the strength of the melodies. But as always with Mozart, there's more than meets the eye, with interesting touches that only become clear with closer study. For that reason alone, The Magic Flute is worth watching and rewatching.
Sir Colin Davis is a noted Mozart conductor. In fact, he's considered one of the world's foremost interpreter's of the composer's works. Thus, this production of The Magic Flute is stunning in its musicality, with all the performers (including Simon Keenlyside as Papageno, Dorothea Roschmann as Pamina, Will Hartmann as Tamino, and Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night) doing great justice to the varying demands of the work. The sets are large and imposing, but well detailed and they fit well with the lust for power evidenced by the Queen. There's a lot to recommend about this production, which is staged with care and precision.
The HD DVD:
Opus Arte presents The Magic Flute in a 1.77:1 1080i AVC-encoded transfer. Opera houses were some of the first venues to see the benefits of high definition, which gave them the ability to record large scale productions in great detail for those in other cities or countries, who might not have the chance to see it in son. This recording of The Magic Flute was taken from a live performance (as evidenced by the thunderous applause after every number), and the first thing one will notice is that the transfer feels noisy. Blacks are very shallow and often break up. Of course, stage lighting is not conducive to great HD imagery. But when the spotlight is on a performer, you can make out many details that wouldn't be visible in standard definition.
Opus Arte graces The Magic Flute with two lossless Dolby True HD mixes, one in 5.1, and the other in 2.0. On the whole, the mixes do justice to the production. While the surrounds are mostly confined to the orchestra, the recording is generally clear and crisp. You get the sense of the size of the venue, sometimes to the point where more quiet sections feel a little too quiet, but when the orchestra picks up the track handles it quite ably. The Magic Flute is in German, and subtitles are available in English, German, French, and Spanish.
- Illustrated Synopsis: A short but effective synopsis, set to pictures from the production. A good way to get an overview before diving in.
- Behind The Scenes: A series of interviews with a few of the major contributors the the production, giving their thoughts on the work and each other.
- Sir Colin Davis Interview: A ten minute interview, mostly about Mozart and Davis' relationship to the composer's work.
The Magic Flute is one of Mozart's most enduring and popular operas, and this production, conducted by the world renowned Sir Colin Davis, has all the excitement and precise musicality that Mozart infused into the work. While the HD image is less than impressive, the sound alone is worth your time, and the high quality of the production itself makes it worth a view for new fans and Mozart experts alike. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.