Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Magic Flute

The entrance of the Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), 
designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815.

How is it possible not to like Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, 1791), perhaps his most beloved opera?

As a measure of that universal appreciation, Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's most-performed opera by far, and in the 2015-16 season was the second-most-performed opera worldwide by any composer, according to And the fairy-tale-like story has sparked the imagination of many visual artists. In the mid-70s Ingmar Bergman made a famous film version (performed in Swedish); in the early 2000s Julie Taymor directed a colorfully syncretic production at the Metropolitan Opera (performed in English); and more recently William Kentridge has created a production involving his striking animated projections.(Samples of all of these and more are easily findable on YouTube.)

So how is it possible not to like The Magic Flute? Let me count the ways:
  1. The libretto is racist. The libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder features Monostatos, a "blackamoor," who is portrayed as cowardly, impulsive and lustful and who tries to rape the heroine.
  1. The libretto is misogynistic and sexist. The Queen of Night represents darkness and evil while her male enemy, the philosopher-priest Sarastro, represents light and wisdom. And Sarastro tells the abducted heroine Pamina (daughter of the Queen of Night) that he won't allow her to return to her mother because without male influence they will inevitably go astray: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him all women tend to step out of their proper place."
  1. The libretto is hypocritical. When Pamina begs Sarastro not to punish her mother, whose actions have been motivated by "the pain of losing me," he tells her that "within these sacred portals revenge is unknown" and "enemies are forgiven." At the end of the opera—spoiler alert!—the Queen of Night, her Three Ladies and Monostatos are swept away and plunged into "eternal darkness." Forgiveness is sweet.
  1. The dialogue is spoken. In recitative (words that are half-sung, half spoken, with instrumental accompaniment) the music can emphasize or ironically comment on the words, anticipate or echo themes, and become part of the musical as well as dramatic structure of the opera. Spoken dialogue, instead of being part of the musical flow of an opera, is an interruption of that flow. And particularly for home listening, long stretches of dialogue in German are not an appealing prospect for those of us who aren't fluent in the language.
  1. The hero is a tenor. Prince Tamino is a tenor role, and if you're a regular reader of this blog you're already aware of my feelings about tenor heroes.
My hesitations about the opera seemed to place me in a distinct minority, though it was not a minority of one. The composer and critic Jan Swafford reports that his reaction on first hearing The Magic Flute was "I hated it." More of his reactions: "The story of Prince Tamino and his journey to love and wisdom appeared to me unmitigated flapdoodle. . .out of date. . .moronic. . .supposedly amusing. . .tedious. . .the whole thing struck me as hopeless."

My reaction was never that negative, but I had seen Bergman's film and wondered why it was so deeply appealing to so many. What was I missing?

Then last week I found a recording of the opera, the version conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964, which features Gundula Janowitz as Pamina and Lucia Popp as the Queen of Night. If you've seen my posts on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs or on orchestral versus piano lieder, then you know that Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp are among my favorite singers.

As soon as I took this recording home and put it on the stereo, what I had been missing was immediately apparent: Mozart's sublime music. To my surprise and delight, Klemperer omits the spoken dialogue. It is easy to fill in the missing action (the booklet libretto is complete), and without the dialogue you get to immerse yourself in two hours of peak Mozart. This recording was made when both Janowitz and Popp were at the start of their careers: Janowitz was 26, and Popp, who was, of course, playing the role of her mother, was 24.

Here is Janowitz performing Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fühl's" from that recording. Tamino has taken a vow of silence as one of three trials he must undergo to prove himself worthy of Pamina's hand in marriage. But Pamina thinks his refusal to speak means that he is spurning her, and her heart is broken:

The words:

Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,
Ewig hin der Liebe Glück!
Nimmer kommt ihr Wonnestunde
Meinem Herzen mehr zurück!
Sieh', Tamino, diese Tränen,
Fließen, Trauter, dir allein!
Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen,
So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!
Ah, I feel it, it has vanished,
Love's happiness is forever gone!
Never again will the hour of bliss
Return to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone!
If you no longer feel the longing of love
Then I will find peace in death!

And here is Lucia Popp performing the Queen of Night's aria  "Der Hölle Rache," in which she urges her daughter to kill Sarastro:

The words:

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tot und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur
Wenn nicht durch dich
Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter,
Hoert der Mutter Schwur!
Hell's revenge boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
The agony of death,
Then you will no longer be my daughter.
Forever you will be disowned,
Forever you will be abandoned,
Forever will be destroyed
All the bonds of nature,
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
his life's blood draining away!
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Jan Swafford ultimately had a Magic Flute conversion experience. He writes that "Today I number Die Zauberflöte among the dozen or so works of art that in my experience represent the highest, most potent, most moving things human creativity can achieve. . .Now as the curtain comes down I am usually dissolved in tears. Few works affect me more."

At least so far, I'm in no danger of being dissolved in tears at the curtain of The Magic Flute. (That does happen to me infallibly at the conclusion of The Marriage of Figaro, which remains, in my view, Mozart's greatest work.) But I now appreciate to a far greater extent the sheer beauty that Mozart poured into this opera. Of course I had known its famous arias, but hearing the complete music for the opera revealed that it is filled with wonderful ensembles. From Bergman's film, here are the Three Ladies rescuing Tamino and then arguing over him: (the scene ends at 14:10)

(Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, and Kirsten Vaupe are the Three Ladies; they are accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Ericson. Wagner's Rhinemaidens are obviously the Ladies' granddaughters.)

And as is also true of Cosi fan tutte, another late Mozart opera with a problematic libretto, the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the plot and contradicts its misogyny. Sarastro may assert that women need a man's guidance; Pamina's emotion-filled aria and her rejection of her mother's burning desire for revenge tell us that she is fully capable of feeling and acting on her own behalf. Schikaneder's Magic Flute may be racist, sexist, and at times silly or incoherent; Mozart's, I've come to realize, is a deeply humane and ravishingly gorgeous. No wonder everyone admires it; and now, at last, Klemperer's recording has enabled me to hear why.

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