This two-disc set of excerpts from Die Zauberflöte and Così fan tutte is taken from complete recordings of the operas made in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festival in the early '90s. (Each is also available individually, but the set is bargain priced.) Charles Mackerras turns in a fleet and elegant performance of highlights from Die Zauberflöte with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus. Barbara Hendricks is especially good as Pamina, singing with radiant and regal tone. Jerry Hadley's tenor is not the most sensual instrument, but he sings with passion and musicality. As the Queen of the Night, June Anderson is certainly up to the task, but she lacks the fiery fury to make the character genuinely frightening; her vocal pyrotechnics are impressive but not thrilling. Robert Lloyd adequately manages the role of Sarastro, but he doesn't have the authority and gravity to anchor the opera, as the character should. Thomas Allen's Papageno maneuvers the fine line of being funny without descending into slapstick, and his voice is warm and supple; it's an especially ingratiating performance, one of the finest Papagenos on disc. Ulrike Steinsky is a hilarious and adorable Papagena. The singing in the secondary roles is uniformly very fine. The selection of excerpts is generous; at almost 80 minutes, it includes well over half of the music in the opera. The sound is clear, and the engineers create a convincing sense of dramatic space, with tasteful and convincing sound effects.
The recording of Così fan tutte was made when the cast was preparing for performances at the Edinburgh Festival, so the cast members had the advantage of enough rehearsal time together to relax into the opera's humor. The fact that the principals are talented comedians makes their unforced interactions genuinely fun, and they sound like they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Although they are not all international superstars, the performances are stellar. The soloists bring out the humanity and complexity of the opera, and artfully convey their characters' emotional development. It's hard to single out individuals for special praise, since each functions so integrally as part of the whole ensemble, and each is vocally and dramatically so effective. Felicity Lott and Marie McLaughlin are delightfully delineated as the sisters and they sing angelically; their "Ah, che tutta in un momento" is gorgeous. Nuccia Focile's Despina is lyrically playful. As the lovers, Jerry Hadley (in one of his finest recorded performances) and Alessandro Corbelli, and Gilles Cachemaille as Don Alfonso are equally fine, and their ensembles crackle with testosterone-driven bravado. Charles Mackerras leads the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in a lightfooted and nimble reading. Although the instruments are modern (except for the fortepiano and the timpani), Mackerras keeps the sound transparent and the tempos brisk. Teldec's sound is clean, with a nice sense of intimacy.