Wait—Mozart didn’t write that!

A new recording of The Magic Flute takes a lot of liberties with the original score

Wait—Mozart didn't write that!

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Illustration by Stephen Gregory

Classical music fans are very familiar with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. So in his new recording of the opera, conductor Rene Jacobs set out to make it sound unfamiliar. In the Harmonia Mundi three-CD set, Jacobs offers a “historically informed” performance, played on instruments of Mozart’s time. That’s conventional enough.

What’s different is that Jacobs is willing to go against Mozart’s score to make things sound more exciting. When Jacobs has singers insert a whistling interlude that Mozart didn’t write, or adds an unmarked pipe solo before a number ends, we realize he’s trying to give us the last thing anyone would expect from classical music: surprise.

In spite of the old instruments used by his German orchestra, Jacobs’s approach to Mozart seems closer to 19th-century conductors who felt free to change things if it felt right. Daniel Behle, the German tenor who sings the lead role of Tamino, told Maclean’s that under Jacobs, “there were a lot of slight changes, which were unusual for me to sing. He played with little stops, crescendos and tempo changes.” As part of what Jacobs calls his own “personal imaginative response,” he feels free to take numbers slower or faster than marked, or to speed up and slow down without Mozart asking it. In a dance sequence, he adds an unwritten pause after every line, making it sound nothing like any previous version.

Sometimes this means adding music, particularly in the spoken dialogue scenes in between the numbers. Jacobs brings in a piano to improvise accompaniments (based on Mozart’s tunes) for some of these scenes. As part of his attempt to, as Behle puts it, “use the original text and spice it up,” Jacobs, a former singer himself, has worked with his cast to create bits of music so they can sing lines that were intended to be spoken. To people who know the opera, this approach can either sound like a revelation—making the usually boring dialogue sound riveting—or what Tim Ashley in the Guardian called “fussily postmodern.” But either way, it’s not what opera buffs have come to expect.

That sense of freedom is part of what endears Jacobs to many listeners and infuriates others. Behle says this kind of thing “helps to make the whole opera more alive and fun to hear,” but David Vickers, a critic for such publications as Gramophone, told Maclean’s that Jacobs “has a weird tendency to be stimulating and infuriating in equal measure,” and that some of his recordings are “wilfully eccentric and difficult to enjoy or condone.” But it’s part of a general trend in the historically informed performance movement: instead of playing things as they were played in the composer’s time, many musicians are asserting their right to do what works, whether it’s authentic or not.

That’s a way of solving the big problem of classical performance, which is that we know the music too well. Marc Minkowski, a French period-instrument conductor, gets around this in his new recording of Haydn’s popular Surprise symphony: he repeats music where Haydn said not to, and then has the members of his orchestra scream in unison. It’s totally inauthentic—but, as Greg Sandow pointed out at, “Haydn’s most important intention here was the surprise.” If the music is too familiar, he asked, “do we really honour his intentions by stubbornly playing exactly what he wrote?”

The same may go for Jacobs’s version of The Magic Flute. Even if many details aren’t what Mozart wrote, they do relate to what’s happening in the story. In Jacobs’s reading of the duet for the comic-relief sidekick Papageno (Daniel Schmutzhard) and his sweetheart Papagena (Sunhae Im), Jacobs starts out very slow when they see each other, accelerates when they celebrate being together, and slows almost to a halt when they think about having children. None of these tempo changes are written in the score, but they have more dramatic energy than a literal reading. And though Mozart once wrote that he wanted his music played “just as it says on the page,” Jacobs may be getting closer to Mozart’s real intention: not being boring.

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