An article on Mozart’s The Magic Flute by my friend David Nice over at I’ll Think of Something Later led me (as David’s writings so often do) to do two things: download one of the great recordings of Mozart’s masterpiece and search for one of several books I have on the work of Emanuele Luzzati as inspired by the genius that was Wolfgang A.
Never out of the catalogue since the day it was issued, the recording was produced by Walter Legge in Germany between November 8, 1937 and March 8th of the following year in Berlin’s Beethovensaal. It featured the Berlin Philharmonic and the cream of Germany’s operatic talent – or at least those who had not been forced to leave by the Nazis; but most surprisingly it was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham had created some controversy in 1936 when he taken the London Philharmonic on tour to Germany and had agreed to the “request” not to include Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony in their repertoire – though a convert to Christianity the Nazi government still regarded Mendelssohn as a “Jewish composer”. To the discomfort of the authorities even Der Fuehrer was not exempt from one of Sir Thomas’s comments. When Hitler showed up late for one of the Berlin concerts Beecham was heard, in one of those mutters of his that could fill a room, to observe “That stupid old bugger’s late!”
|A computer reconstruction of the Beethovensaal, home of the Berlin Philharmonic
before the Second World War. It was destroyed in the Allied bombing raids.
It was the major recording venue for HMV between the two Great Wars.
Though not an Nazi sympathizer – Beecham refused invitations to tour Germany after 1936 – he nevertheless honoured contracts he had with the Berlin State Opera in ’37-38. For HMV Legge assembled an all-German cast (though Danish-born Helge Rosvaenge made his career in Germany and Austria) and it seems that he audaciously replaced a few “unacceptable” members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra strategically with players from the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. The Queen of the Night’s aria O zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Tremble not, my dear son) was still unrecorded when Beecham left Berlin at the beginning of March and was recorded later that month with Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.
Despite its slightly clouded history the recording was greeted with superlatives when it was issued on 19 double-sided shellac 78s as one of HMV’s The Mozart Opera Society recordings. As the LP era took over many other recordings were to appear but this pioneering effort was the one most frequently held up for comparison. My own Flute of choice has always been the 1962 recording also produced by Legge under the baton of Otto Klemperer. I recall hearing an LP transfer of the earlier Berlin recording and not being terribly impressed – it sounded as if it had been copied from the 78s clicks, pops and hisses intact. But after several hearings of the 2001 remastering of Beecham’s historical recording on Naxos I am inclined to place it very close second in my list of favourites. Though the two conductors could not be more different in their approach they both capture the inspired lunacy of Schikaneder that is made magical by Mozart’s music. The surprise with Klemperer was always how jolly and warm, almost folk-like, the more comic moments sounded and with Beecham it is the sublime majesty of the more serious – but then should I really be that surprised? He was, after-all, a conductor of Wagner, Strauss and Delius.
|Emanuele Luzzati’s set model for the 1963 Die Zauberflote at Glyndebourne. Ten
triangular screens, each manipulated by a stagehand hidden inside moved about
the stage under the direction of a stage manager using early wireless technology.
|Luzzati’s sketches suggest the positions he wanted for the screens and designs (each side had a
different colour and design theme) he wanted revealed for the various scenes as the opera unfolded.
That strange juxtaposition of the inane and the sublime has always been a problem both in the pit and on stage. How do you reconcile the antics of Papageno with the proclamations of Sarastro; how do you handle that sudden switch of bad guys half-way through the first act. How do you stage a work which, as Winthrop Sargeant observed, is often dramatically dull and where “in the last act – the Klu Klux Klan marches around and says “No!” while Tamino tries to become an Eagle Scout”? And Sargeant is right – it can all be very morally upright and lets admit it the stage is not really the place where moral uprightness shows to best advantage. Often when stage directors have failed their designers have come through and found the magic in the Flute. And an incredible array of designers have strove and in many cases found the balance between Mozart and Schikaneder; amongst the more famous are Marc Chagall at the Met in 1967, David Hockney at Glynedebourne (’78) and the Met (’91), Beni Montressor at the NYC Opera, William Kentridge at La Monnaie (’05) and La Scala (’11), Oskar Kokoschka, Maurice Sendak and again at Glyndebourne my beloved Emanuele Luzzati in 1963.
Every year, beginning in 1960, I ordered a copy of the Glyndebourne Programme Book and between those lavish publications and the marvelous recordings I had from the Festival (Le Comte Ory, Cenerentola, the 1936 Cosi) I would armchair travel in tuxedoed splendor on the train from Victoria to the Sussex downs, picnic by the HaHa, wander in the gardens and revel in Mozart or Rossini. I first became aware of Luzzati’s work when I opened that 1963 Programme Book. I was immediately captured by his strange drawings – and remember wondering how on earth they were ever realized. But I was even more intrigued by his use of 10 three sided screens maneuvered about the stage by a stagehand inside who took instructions from the Stage Manager on wireless headphones – how modern was that? In subsequent years I was fascinated by Luzzati’s designs for Don Giovanni, Macbeth and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. All very different but all distinctively Luzzati.
I finally got to Glyndebourne in 1969, dined in the Nether Wallop and saw the new Luzzati-John Pritchard Cosi along with Pelléas and Werther. But the following year was to be “the year” – as well as Janet Baker in La Calisto and Graziella Scuitti in Il Turco in Italia – I finally got to see that Magic Flute. If in my memory book it takes second place to the Calisto (one of those truly great nights of opera that I can count on the fingers of one hand) it was still memorable for the performances of a young Illena Cortubas, Weishal Ochman and Hans Sotin – and the magic of Luzzati’s designs. At one moment dark and glittering, the next all bosky green and in a twinkling gleaming gold they perfectly captured the shifts from whimsy to wisdom that so intrigues in this silly-sublime final work of the equally silly-sublime Mozart.
Luzzati only designed that one production of The Magic Flute for the stage but he was to use the opera as the inspiration for designs of all sorts throughout his life. Posters, playing cards, a full length animation and a children’s book were all to give him opportunities to express the joy that the work so obviously gave him. Though long out of print I was able to find that children’s book online and decided that I’d make a short video combining those two things that my friend David had led me to search out: Sir Thomas’s recording from so long ago and Luzzati’s interpretation for children – so different and yet often similar to his vision for the stage.
Many thanks David – as always you led me to something wonderful.