UNLOCKING MAGIC FLUTE’S MYSTERIES
Although among the most popular and instantly enjoyable operas in the repertory, Mozart’s The Magic Flute tends to baffle those who expect an opera plot to unfold with orderly consistency—like Puccini’s La Bohème, for example, a poignant love story told with economy, clarity, and no fancy pretenses. The Magic Flute, on the other hand, can often seem like a puzzling hodgepodge of events, ranging from low farce to sublime solemnity, and opinions differ widely over what it all means.
Characters freely come and go, some changing from goodies to baddies without warning, while one scene tumbles into another in playful ways that often seem to defy logic. Even the time and place are inconsistent in this never-never land, a setting that includes suggestions of ancient Egypt, far-eastern mysticism, somber Masonic rituals, pious biblical allusions, or comical antics that one might encounter at 18th-century Viennese puppet shows or vaudeville entertainments.
For many of course, such unpredictable volatility is part of the opera’s charm. After all, Mozart and his librettist, the actor-impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who also performed the role of Papageno in the first performances at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden in 1791, were more interested in entertaining audiences than presenting a subtly developed theater piece with a coded agenda. Nothing could be farther from a typical Wagnerian music drama, which can be enjoyed as a straightforward retelling of a colorful myth but one that always invites complex analyses of the action’s underlying symbolism.
Perhaps the most confusing characters in The Magic Flute are its two adversarial power figures, the Queen of the Night, ruler of an ambiguously dark and shadowy unnamed realm, and Sarastro, high priest of the sun-drenched world of Isis and Osiris. The Queen mourns the loss of her daughter, Pamina, stolen from her by Sarastro, and recruits the guileless young Prince Tamino to rescue the girl. At first we are quite prepared to accept the Queen’s good intentions and moral high ground—after all, her motherly concern seems genuine, her three ladies gallantly save Tamino from the clutches of a deadly serpent, and his companion, the high-spirited birdcatcher Papageno, is justly but gently punished for telling fibs. But when Tamino reaches the land of Sarastro, all our expectations are suddenly turned around. The “evil sorcerer” Sarastro himself is revealed as a ruler of profound wisdom and goodness, while the Queen of the Night is unexpectedly unmasked as the epitome of evil and corruption.
To some commentators these role reversals come as inexplicably abrupt and arbitrary. One might even think that Schikaneder, whose libretto borrowed elements from a variety of Viennese theatricals that were popular at the time, had simply changed his mind about the plot halfway through Act I and never bothered or had the time to find a way to smooth out the inconsistencies. All sorts of explanations have been advanced to rationalize the situation. Perhaps the most ingenious is the suggestion that the whole opera is meant to be seen and experienced through the eyes of Tamino as he gains knowledge and insight. The prince at first unquestioningly believes what he sees and hears when the opera begins, but he gradually matures in perception and grace as he becomes worthy of Pamina, thanks to Sarastro’s benign influence and tuition.
Others see a more mundane commentary on contemporary political events working beneath the surface. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, and symbols of the order’s practices appear in many scenes of the opera—the three chords that open the opera’s overture and are frequently heard thereafter clearly represent a novitiate knocking at the lodge door to gain entrance, while Tamino’s enlightenment trials have their own resemblance to Masonic initiation rituals. Since the Austrian empress Maria Theresa was vehemently opposed to the Masons and did what she could to break up their lodges, it is not too far-fetched to see her portrayed here as the vengeful Queen of the Night and Sarastro as her more benevolent but inevitably estranged opposite number. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Queen and Sarastro were once married and had a daughter named Pamina, thereby turning the whole opera into an elaborate domestic squabble centered on child custody.
Then again, perhaps all these fanciful interpretations only serve to make us lose sight of what is most important about the opera itself. The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman suggested as much in his film version of The Magic Flute, which in one illusion-shattering moment takes us backstage during intermission to show the singers of the Queen and Sarastro in their dressing rooms, intently engaged in a down-to-earth but very competitive card game. Forget about the absurdities, Bergman seems to be telling us. This is, after all, just an opera, and its profundities are best understood by reading the rapt faces of audience members as shown onscreen during the overture, reacting to the sublimity of Mozart’s music. What an inspired device to illustrate how music, the universal art, creates the true magical consistency of The Magic Flute.
Many have tried to describe the potency of Mozart’s score, none more extravagantly than George Bernard Shaw. The Irish playwright and music critic even went so far as to proclaim that Sarastro’s pronouncements were the only musical utterances in his experience that could worthily come from the mouth of God. On the other hand, there is definitely an element of wheedling insincerity and self-absorption in the Queen of the Night’s lamenting first aria, while the sheer coloratura ferocity of the concluding section—vocal fireworks that become even more brilliant in her second-act “vengeance” aria—vividly reveals her true evil character.
The pure-at-heart Papageno attains his own illuminating moment—and a wife—through music of more ebullient lyricism
On a more human level, Mozart finds precisely the correct musical tone to contrast the earthy everyman spirit of Papageno and his mate Papagena with the more elevated spiritual quest of Tamino and Pamina on their path to human enlightenment. How appropriate that both couples are guided to their goals with the help of a musical instrument, Tamino’s magic flute and Papageno’s enchanted set of bells. Within that context Tamino and Pamina endure their trials of fire, earth, and water accompanied by music that is positively breathtaking in its transparency and eloquent simplicity. The pure-at-heart Papageno attains his own illuminating moment—and a wife—through music of more ebullient lyricism, and we are convinced that he has fully earned a lifetime of family bliss because his music so unmistakably describes his inherent good nature.
There are still aspects about The Magic Flute that some will find troubling. The racist depiction of Monostatos, an evil Moor improbably in the service of Sarastro, is deplorable, while the rigid rules, regulations, and misogynist activities of Sarastro’s order (presumably representative of the Masons) often seem rather less than benign. In fact, one could easily imagine how impossible Schikaneder’s libretto might strike us had it been set to music by any number of the lesser composers who flourished during the late 18th century. Mozart, however, emphasized the spirit of the drama more than its letter, and positively reveled in all the generous opportunities he was given to clothe the action in music of dazzling variety, invention, and depth of expression.
The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once defined a composer of genius as one capable of writing music that enters the ear with ease and leaves it with difficulty. That sounds very much like The Magic Flute, and explains why we never tire of exploring its richness.
Peter G. Davis, author of The American Opera Singer, writes for The New York Times and Opera News. He was music critic for New York magazine for 26 years.