René Jacobs: The Magic Flute

Get a Free Download of the "Queen of the Night" aria sung by Anna-Kristiina Kaappola

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Magic Flute is Mozart’s "magic opera" – a work based on folk tales, with plenty of stunts, spectacular stage effects and vernacular language. But on too many recordings, the magic seems to be missing. Belgian conductor René Jacobs has set out to overcome this with a new period-instrument recording that’s lively, original and potentially divisive. It's this week's Full Rotation.

True to Jacobs’s past Mozart operas, this one is brisk, controlled, precisely sung and played. Yet it's also iconoclastic: included is virtually every word of the extensive dialogue that occurs between the musical numbers, much of which is usually cut on recordings. An array of sound effects -- crashing noises, dripping water and even atmospheric background music -- underpins some of the speech. It comes closer to a radio play or melodrama in which every sound and aria is heightened for maximum effect (watch this making-of video to get a sample of it).

To his credit, Jacobs gets results that make some of the older, more traditional recordings sound bloated and lazy. Lively tempos, crisp articulations and carefully scaled dynamics give this Flute a chamber perspective of much refinement.

The overall level of singing is also high. The standouts are soprano Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, who delivers the "Queen of the Night" aria with a thrilling laser-beam accuracy; Daniel Schmutzhard, who makes for an amiable and earthy Papageno; and Marcos Fink, who is an unpretentiously firm and clear as Sarastro.

And yet, some listeners may prefer Mozart on modern instruments without all the quirks, effects and exaggerated tempos (Jacobs sees it as a kind of heightened realism).

This week, we want to know, is there an "authentic" way to perform this -- or any -- work?

Here's a test: listen to this recording of the Overture to Zauberflöte as performed by René Jacobs and then a 1980 performance played on the modern instruments of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. Tell us in the comments box below which version you prefer and why. We'll be reading some of your comments on air.

René Jacobs conducts the Overture to Die Zauberflöte:

Herbert von Karajan conducts the Overture to Die Zauberflöte:

Mozart's The Magic Flute
René Jacobs
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi
Available at


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Comments [2]

I prefer the Jacobs although some of the string players are clearly not up to playing it at his speed. I believe the crispness of the sound is just more attractive to my ears. Karajan is too heavy-handed. The Jacobs would have been perfect at a slower tempo, but, he is still in the learning stage, no?

Oct. 17 2010 02:35 PM
Bob Sch from Rockland Country NY

The depth is missing on the Jacobs recording On the Van Karajan presentation, the distinction between the instruments are readily heard, the pianomissiios and the fortes stand in proper contrast. There is more of a sound of a full orchestra.

Oct. 13 2010 05:50 PM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.