Record Guide: Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail

“Too beautiful for our ears, and so many notes, dear Mozart!” – Emperor Joseph II on Die Entführung aus dem Serail

In 1782, with Die Entführung aus dem Serail, his first proper Viennese opera, Mozart changed the whole paradigm of the German Singspiel for years to come. What had been a genre of mostly comic plays with little musical interludes was turned on its head with a full-blown operatic masterpiece that surpassed everything that had been done before in the field of Singspiel, and was only to be surpassed by Mozart himself in his next venture into the genre. Die Entführung is a very difficult opera, requiring three virtuoso singers for the roles of Konstanze (soprano), Belmonte (tenor) and Osmin (bass), as well as two character actors with the ability to sing beautifully for the roles of Blonde (soprano) and Pedrillo (tenor). Understandably, assembling such a skilled ensemble of singers for a recording is a challenge. Fortunately, record companies have always managed to do so, resulting in recordings with good casts, making Die Entführung one of the best-recorded operas in the Mozart repertoire.

INTERESTING, BUT NOT QUITE UP TO PAR

The 1978 RCA recording, conducted by Heinz Wallberg, is competent but lacks depth. It feels superficial, ordinary and straightforward, overlooking many of the subtle details Mozart incorporated into his work. Edita Gruberová’s portrayal of Konstanze is fiery but lacks depth, concentrating too much on the technical aspects of the role to the detriment of interpretation. In contrast, Francisco Araiza’s Belmonte is elegant, articulate and polished, second only to Fritz Wunderlich in the entire discography. The rest of the cast works well enough for this recording to be considered acceptable overall.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s heterodox reading (Teldec, 1985) exemplifies the brilliant use of Turkish elements in the orchestra and sets a standard in this respect. However, while interesting, the recording fails to deliver a convincing Entführung, largely due to Harnoncourt’s constant tinkering with the tempo of the work. The cast doesn’t quite shine, especially when compared to some other recordings, with the exception of Matti Salminen’s grim Osmin. Peter Schreier’s interpretation of Belmonte is as interesting as ever, but his vocal abilities were beginning to decline at this time.

As part of his Mozart opera cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Entführung (2014, live) is a bit like Wallberg, in the sense that it’s sometimes shallow, but improves on it by being a bit wittier and smarter. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is recorded vividly, and its light and crisp sound works very well with the comic elements of the opera. While Rolando Villazón’s reading of Belmonte is obviously intelligent and studied, his voice struggles with the role, and while Diana Damrau can hit the notes, her Konstanze is at times harsh. The rest of the cast is adequate but not outstanding.

PERIOD INSTRUMENT VERSIONS CAPTIVATE BUT ULTIMATELY FALL SHORT

Unlike Mozart’s Italian operas, period instruments don’t seem to work so well for Entführung, but there are still some interesting aspects to consider. Although there are more choices on the market, I have chosen to focus on the recordings by Christopher Hogwood for l’Oiseau-Lyre (1990), Sir John Eliot Gardiner for Archiv (1991) and William Christie for Erato (1997). The Hogwood version is superficially conducted, but the main attraction is Uwe Heilmann’s Belmonte, which is among the best, while the supporting cast works well enough. The Gardiner version, on the other hand, is masterfully conducted, but the cast doesn’t measure up to its conductor. Meanwhile, William Christie’s interpretation is somewhere in the middle. The musical direction isn’t as thorough and calculated as Gardiner’s, but it’s still preferable to Hogwood’s. The cast, though none as brilliant as Uwe Heilmann, is good enough to make a convincing recording. Christine Schäfer’s Konstanze is introspective and emotional, Ian Bostridge’s diminutive Belmonte is intelligent and sensitive, while Patricia Petibon’s witty Blonde steals the show whenever she’s singing.

GREAT LIVE OPTIONS

Ferenc Fricsay’s deep understanding of the work and of Mozart himself shines through in this live version from 1949 (Walhall). His lively, energetic and clear interpretation is perfectly suited to Entführung, making this a very enjoyable recording. We have the chance to hear Anton Dermota’s refined Belmonte, one of the best in the discography, but the unfortunate cut of ‘Ich baue ganz’ in the third act leaves us wanting more. Josef Greindl gives a stern yet impressive performance as Osmin, and Rita Streich’s portrayal of Blonde is truly memorable. The sound quality is surprisingly good for a live recording of this age.

In this 1956 live version from the Salzburg Festival (Orfeo) we have the rare opportunity to hear George Szell conducting an opera. This recording clearly demonstrates why he was regarded as one of the great Mozartians of the last century, for his quick, clear and infectiously humorous interpretation is a joy to listen to. While his cast may not be the best individually for this work, as an ensemble they all benefit from his direction, with Rudolf Schock (Belmonte) and Kurt Böhme (Osmin) thriving the most.

Another recording from the Salzburg Festival, this time from 1965, features a young Zubin Mehta on the podium (Orfeo). While still maintaining a fast pace similar to Szell’s, Mehta’s conducting of this work is characterised by a more calm, determined and grounded approach. The cast is outstanding; Anneliese Rothenberger’s Konstanze is quite good, and opposite her we have an anthological performance of Belmonte by Fritz Wunderlich, undoubtedly the best tenor to sing the role in recorded history. Reri Grist’s performance as Blonde is almost unparalleled, and Gerhard Unger’s Pedrillo is excellent. Fernando Corena, known for his Italian buffo roles, brings a similar approach to Osmin, which works well on the whole, even if it does seem a little over the top at times.

EXCELLENT RECORDINGS, BUT…

These next three recordings are remarkable, but they have a single unacceptable omission: Belmonte’s Act III aria ‘Ich baue ganz’. A performance or recording of Entführung without ‘Ich baue ganz’ is almost like a Norma without ‘Casta diva’ or a Turandot without ‘Nessun dorma’, so it is impossible to recommend these recordings over those that include it. Nevertheless, they are exceptional in their own right and more than deserve to be mentioned in this guide.

Ferenc Fricsay’s second recorded reading of the work (Deutsche Grammophon, 1954), this time in the studio but still in mono, is similar to his previous, but with better sound quality. The same direct and energetic musical direction is accompanied by a stellar cast consisting of Maria Stader’s spectacular Konstanze – one of the best in the entire discography, Ernst Haefliger’s Belmonte – who gives a lesson in ‘Mozartianism’ every time he sings, Josef Greindl’s once again serious but captivating Osmin, Rita Streich’s remarkable Blonde and Martin Vantin’s unconventional Pedrillo. ‘Ich baue ganz’ isn’t cut from this recording per se, but it’s greatly reduced.

Sir Thomas Beecham’s rendition of the work (EMI/Warner, 1956) has always been controversial because of his rearrangement of some of the musical numbers, such as placing Konstanze’s ‘Martern aller Arten’ in Act III, near the end of the opera, instead of its original placement in the middle of Act II. That aside, Beecham’s musical direction, like the great Mozartian he was, is excellent. His male cast, with Léopold Simoneau as Belmonte, Gottlob Frick as one of the finest basses ever to sing Osmin and Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, is outstanding. The female cast, however, falls a little short with Lois Marshall as Konstanze and Ilse Hollweg as Blonde.

Another great 20th-century Mozart expert, Josef Krips, recorded the work for EMI/Warner in 1966. He had already recorded Entführung for Decca in 1950, but this second version is preferred because of the stereo sound and the superior cast. His precise and vibrant conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic blends perfectly with the cast, which includes Anneliese Rothenberger’s tidy Konstanze, Nicolai Gedda’s passionate Belmonte, Gottlob Frick reprising his great Osmin of ten years earlier, Lucia Popp’s marvellous Blonde and Gerhard Unger’s excellent Pedrillo.

EXCELLENT RECORDINGS, NO BUTS

The recorded history of Entführung is so rich that we can still find excellent recordings of the opera that do not cut out ‘Ich baue ganz’. Each of these three recordings would make a fine addition to any CD collection.

The underrated Eugen Jochum recorded his version for Deutsche Grammophon in 1965. His stylish, intense direction makes this a unique version of Entführung. This recording boasts the best Belmonte ever recorded: Fritz Wunderlich. The full range and beauty of his voice can be heard throughout the opera, in perhaps his most important recording before his untimely death. The rest of the cast, while not so individually outstanding, benefit from Jochum’s leadership and make worthy counterparts to Wunderlich.

In 1985, Sir Georg Solti surprised all critics with his witty version of Entführung (Decca), as he wasn’t exactly known for his comic opera conducting skills at the time. His cast is absolutely first-rate, with Edita Gruberová improving on the interpretative aspects of Konstanze that she didn’t bother to acknowledge in 1978, Martti Talvela delivering a superb performance as Osmin, Kathleen Battle portraying the best Blonde in the records and Heinz Zednik as a convincing Pedrillo. The downside of the cast is Gösta Winbergh’s cold, stiff and expressionless Belmonte.

Although the cast of this 1991 recording does not include many big names apart from Cheryl Studer, German conductor Bruno Weil skilfully maximises the talent at his disposal (Sony). His direction may not be as comprehensive and thorough as that of some of the great Mozartians, such as Beecham or Krips, but his great achievement is to create a recording that is greater than the sum of its parts, maximising the abilities of his singers to create a perfect ensemble for his vision of the work.

TOP RECOMMENDATION

My top recommendation for Die Entführung aus dem Serail is Karl Böhm’s 1973 recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Böhm’s musical direction, complemented by the beautiful sound of the Staatskapelle Dresden, strikes the perfect balance: it is comic without rushing, witty while honouring the dramatic moments, and clear yet sensitive to the opera’s few darker undertones. Arleen Auger’s Konstanze is perfect, arguably the best on record, and the same goes for Kurt Moll’s unsurpassed Osmin. Peter Schreier, although lacking the natural vocal beauty of tenors like Wunderlich or Araiza, delivers an iconic Belmonte through his intelligent, meticulous and thorough interpretation of the role. Reri Grist’s Blonde is outstanding, coming close to Kathleen Battle’s interpretation, and Harald Neukirch’s Pedrillo, while lacking in vocal prowess, more than makes up for it with his interpretive skills.

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