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November 20, 2005

Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is the last of Mozart's Famous Five, a series of operas that sandwiches the three most divine Italian operas (even if Italians don't think so) with two German singspielen. The Great Seven frame the Famous Five further with two very fine opera seria, thoroughly conventional dramas, set to themes from classical antiquity (one mythical, one historical). So Zauberflöte is not Mozart's last opera. Although La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Emperor Titus) opened three weeks before The Magic Flute, and not even in Vienna, but in far-off Frankfurt, it was composed afterward. It is my conviction that the hectic rush surrounding these premieres irreversibly compromised Mozart's health, killing him a little over two months later.

Die Zauberflöte is like nothing else in Mozart's oeuvre. For all the mumbo-jumbo of its Masonic references (which I take no more seriously than I would if a magpie had assembled them), this is by far the most accessible of Mozart's operas. It is so much more accessible, in fact, that it makes a lousy introduction to Mozart's operas in general. Its tunes pack a memorability punch that is rarely encountered outside of Verdi. There are no complex ensembles; the beautiful "locked" quintet, early in the first act, is a big bunch of silliness that works better in a language that you don't understand. Certainly nothing beyond an exchange of bromides occurs during it. Much the same can be said of the corresponding quintet in the second act (for the same voices). The music seems to be beautiful not for any dramatic purpose but simply for offering the pleasure of beautiful music.

Come to think of it, that describes every note in this piece of puppet-show nonsense. Pairing the noble prince, Tamino, with the peasant birdcatcher, Papageno, is an almost senseless deviation from the usual operatic male coupling of the period (think Don Giovanni and Leporello), for Papageno has nothing to offer but liability. In a bizarre correspondence, his mate, Papagena, comes into the action altogether too late to form a partnership with her natural mistress, the noble princess, Pamina, who is forced to go through the action in singularly isolated fashion - this is what makes her huge but simple aria of despair, "Ach, ich fuhl's" so moving. The roles of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro are totally confused, but even in this they fail to hang together. The Queen is a coloratura showoff whose music can't really be sung by the human voice, while Sarastro, in single-minded masculine fashion, seems interested only in showing off the, er, depth of his voice. Conventions aren't flouted so much as upended.

There is only one way in which The Magic Flute makes sense, and, happily, it has been doing so to thousands of audiences for over two hundred years. It is play. It's Amadé in his toybox, making an Olympian racket. You can get analytical if you want to: Sarastro is the father Mozart wished he'd had; the Queen of the Night is the father he'd been stuck with. Und so weiter. But just remember that that's your toybox.

In any case, take the kids. Play it for them, at least. Have it on in the background. And be sure to tell them the story of an opening night when Mozart was actually backstage. Emanuel Schikaneder, the Viennese impresario who commissioned the entertainment and the first Papageno, couldn't have played his character's magic bells to save his life, so a musician backstage was posted to accompany Schikaneder's mime. On one occasion, Mozart is said to have taken over the glockenspiel during "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" and made a point of striking notes when Schikaneder, onstage and in full view of the audience,  conspicuously wasn't. It was the most glorious kind of childishness. So is Die Zauberflöte.

Posted by pourover at November 20, 2005 10:42 PM

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