Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thoughts on The Magic Flute

James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. 1991.

The Magic Flute is 218 today. The last opera Mozart completed, he began and completed Le Clemenza di Tito amidst writing The Magic Flute, the work has enjoyed an aura of mystery since its premiere and for a number of reasons. First and foremost is likely Mozart's untimely death, which followed the premiere by a mere two months. The myths surrounding his death add still to the confusion, as does the fact Milos Forman's masterpiece Amadeus, for reasons of compression, depicts the premiere as occurring the night before his death. Second is the nature of the opera's themes. The Rosicrucian symbols and Masonic rituals naturally invite speculation as to their meanings. Last, if you will permit me to name it last, is the music. (I list it last only because I suspect there are many who know of Mozart and the myths surrounding him but not his music.) The three-fold chords of the overture, the solemn marches and hymns, and a simplicity both transfixing and transporting form what Charles Rosen called, "the first genuinely classical religious style." [1] In this atmosphere Mozart gives us exotic locations, fantastic animals, and magic instruments. A religious initiation, a fairy tale, and a spectacle, The Magic Flute will enchant all but the most obtuse listener.

Strange then that such an ethereal work should offer us a most straightforward and imminently practicable morality. We do not have exegeses or debate, moral ambiguity and shades of grey, but rather dark and light, uncontrolled passion and reason. Throughout we have simple wisdom plainly said. Papageno asks Pamina what they should tell Sarastro and she responds, "The truth. The truth, even if it were a crime!" In an aria calming Pamina, Sarastro sings:
Within these sacred portals
revenge is unknown,
and if a man has fallen,
love guides him to his duty.
Then, with a friend's hand, he walks,
glad and joyful, into a better land.

Within these sacred walls,
where man loves fellow man,
no traitor can lurk,
because enemies are forgiven.
He who is not gladdened by such teachings
does not deserve to be a man.

Kurt Moll as Sarastro in the 1991 production conducted by James Levine

That very aria, "In deisen heil'gen hallen. . ." is the antithesis of the Queen's manic fury:

Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night in the 2003 production conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Additionally, in considering that both arias, one wicked the other kind, should both be so beautiful, I yield the floor to C.S. Lewis: [2]
Perhaps in the world built by industrialism beauty has become so rare and evil so undisguisedly ugly that we can no longer believe ill of beauty. With the old poets it was not so. They believed that a thing might be perfectly beautiful, might be of a beauty to break the heart, and yet be evil. As for their art, it must be allowed that in one respect art has become more integrated since their times. The old poet, or painter, or musician does seem to have aimed simply at giving each part of his work the greatest beauty. The speeches of wicked characters were made as plausible as the poet could make them, the alluring temptations as alluring as he could make them. He did not feel it necessary to sow hints of falsity in the villain's speech. Perhaps this change is seen most clearly in the history of opera. A modern composer underlines his evil characters or places with discords. An old composer was content with making a courtesan's song soft and melting or a tyrant's song loud and declamatory; within that very general limit he then made each simply good of its kind. Thus Wagner givs Alberich ugly music to sing: but Mozart gives to the Queen of the Night music as beautiful as he gives to Sarastro."
Indeed, consider Alberich's cacophonous "Garstig glatter glitschriger Glimmer" at the opening of Das Rheingold in contrast to the Queen's beautiful, however terrifying, music.

Unfortunately the aphoristic philosophy of the opera and its symbols subject it to many interpretations, even if not wildly different. Perhaps some of its success owes to the fact that so many people with differing beliefs all find them expressed in the opera. Naturally the philosophically-minded will eventually consider whether The Magic Flute's philosophy is elemental and eternal or simply vague. We may desire and extol "love," "virtue," and "happiness" all we want, but without specific definitions of terms we will be hard pressed to come to more than superficial or dogmatic conclusions. Yet we do not go to art for explanation or explication but rather for demonstration and such is why this opera touches me. We arrive at our values by reasoned reflection and The Magic Flute celebrates that fact. We all sense varying degrees of tension between liberty and fraternity, between rights and obligations, loftiness and commonness, each of us leaning one way or another. In this way also, then, is The Magic Flute is a timeless and glorious achievement for in it Mozart gives us the unparalleled feeling of these eternally opposing forces being at once, at last reconciled.

Now anyone familiar with the opera probably does not remember it as being quite so serious and indeed interspersed are Papageno's clowning around and Monostatos' "priapic frenzy." [3] For all of their comedy, though, they are the necessary foils for Tamino. While Papageno can finally cease fretting for his lack of a wife, he does not enter the world of understanding with Tamino. Likewise the aptly named Monostatos, as the schwarz-Papageno [3], does not attain perfection. Regarding Sarastro, I agree with David Cairns that we are meant to imagine him, with his inchoate wisdom, "making way for the 'edles Paar,' the 'noble couple' whom the chorus hail triumphant at the end of their ordeals. . ." [3] Naturally Tamino and Pamina are the heart of the story and their unification is the culmination of all the values everyone has been singing about. In the finale, the chorus rejoices in their union. Not because Tamino, as a prince, takes his proper role as ruler, but because a man, in resisting evil and temptation and embracing reason may fulfill his potential. Likewise Pamina's passage is celebrated not because she is now joined to Tamino, but because once at the mercy of the wills of her mother, Monostatos, and even Sarastro, she is able freely and in understanding to take her place beside Tamino. Both have passed through their trials and now proceed in love and wisdom.

Hail to you on your consecration!
You have penetrated the night,
thanks be given to you,
Osiris, thanks to you, Isis!
Strength has triumphed, rewarding
beauty and wisdom with an everlasting crown!

Francisco Araiza as Tamino and Kathleen Battle as Pamina
in the 1991 production conducted by James Levine.

Will Hartmann as Tamino and Dorothea Röschmann as Pamina,
the 2003 production conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

[1] Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. W.W. Norton & Company. NY, NY. 1997.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, U.K. 1966

[3] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley, U.S. 2006.

Other Reading On Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven. 2007

Chailley, Jacques. The Magic Flute Unveiled: Esoteric Symbolism in Mozart's Masonic Opera. Inner Traditions. Rochester, VT. 1992

Dent, Edward Joseph. Mozart's Operas: A Critical Study. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. Whitefish, MT. 2008

Simon, Henry W. The Festival of Opera. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1957.

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis Vol. IV Illustrative Music. "Essay CXLII. Overture, Die Zauberflöte." Oxford University Press. London. 1937.

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