Program Notes: The Magic Flute
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, K. 620
(World Premiere September 30, 1791; Vienna, Austria)
(2 hours and 35 minutes)
During the first scene of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a fearsome serpent pursues Prince Tamino. Amid stormy and ominous music, the handsome, young nobleman cries for help but is knocked unconscious.
Within moments, three ladies slay the monster. After a brief discussion of the young man’s attractiveness, they depart to advise their mistress of this unexpected occurrence. A panpipe-playing birdcatcher then appears. When Tamino regains consciousness, the birdcatcher falsely claims to have killed the serpent. The three ladies return and chastise him and then show Tamino a portrait of a beautiful girl. He is immediately smitten by this vision of loveliness and sings a rapturous aria praising her beauty.
Nearly half the characters in this fairy tale have just been introduced, but we, the audience, are still not certain how they will interact. Magic, mistaken identity, physical love versus spiritual love and the battle between the forces of good and evil all play a part in this irresistible opera. Both a comedy and a parable, The Magic Flute delights listeners who know its music as well as those who hear it for the first time.
Three majestic chords open the overture. The number three is all-important to this highly symbolic masterwork. From the opera’s opening scene, when the three ladies rescue the terrified Tamino from the serpent, it is clear that the idea of three will figure prominently. Three couples dominate the plot: Tamino and Pamina (the beauty whose picture Tamino glimpses in the opening scene), Papageno and Papagena and The Queen of the Night and Sarastro. Three genii (spirits) announce the three ordeals that the would-be lovers Tamino and Pamina must undergo before they may be united.
In a conscious gesture of musical unity with this symbolism focused on the number three, Mozart cast his overture in the key of E-flat, which has a key signature of three flats. Formally, the overture is a merger of symphonic sonata form and fugue. A slow introduction emphasizes the three sonorous chords, yielding to a contrapuntal Allegro in many ways comparable to the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony. The three chords resound again, three times each, at the beginning of the development section when the Adagio returns for six measures. The entire overture is a marvelous combination of noble sentiment and effervescent spirit, much like the opera that follows.
The Magic Flute is essentially a fairy tale with philosophical overtones. After the opening scene that introduces Tamino, the three ladies and the birdcatcher Papageno, we learn bits and pieces about the beautiful princess Pamina, whose picture so enraptures Tamino. Initially, the Three Ladies, who serve The Queen of the Night, advise him that he must free Pamina from her evil captor if he wishes to win this incomparable vision of beauty for his true love. The Queen herself echoes this charge. Once he enters the domain of Sarastro, The Queen’s estranged husband (to adopt a 21st century locution), Tamino learns he must undergo several trials to determine and verify his worthiness.
Tamino’s pursuit of Pamina and the couple’s willingness to endure and overcome the obstacles thrown in their paths constitute the foreground of the plot. In the middle ground, the simple birdcatcher Papageno attempts to cope with life’s most basic urges: friendship, the desire for romantic love and domestic bliss, fear of danger and joyful celebration of other simple pleasures such as food, drink and music. In the background, The Queen of the Night and Sarastro wage their own battle, ostensibly built around control of their daughter Pamina’s destiny.
Mozart’s vocal variety in The Magic Flute is a marvel. The two leading soprano roles, The Queen of the Night and Pamina, may be mother and daughter, but they could not be further apart in character or in Mozart’s treatment of their voices. The Queen only appears twice–and those appearances are unforgettable. Each time, she sings a blockbuster aria that strikes terror into the heart of coloratura sopranos as much as it is intended to inspire vengeance in the hearts of listeners onstage and off. Pamina’s music, by contrast, is lyrical and warm, bespeaking an altogether different personality type.
Among the leading male roles, we have equal variety of character and vocal range. It is not just a matter of range, but the very quality of the music that Mozart writes. Tamino proves his moral valor and stout heart in the course of the opera and through his meltingly beautiful tenor arias. The baritone Papageno is his comic foil, garnering most of the laughs in the spoken dialogue sections and singing the quasi-folksongs that yield The Magic Flute’s most memorable melodies. Of course, he has a little bit of magical help! Sarastro, a true operatic bass, lends psychological and spiritual depth as well as literal pitch depth in his music.
In addition to the vocal variety of the principal characters and the priests’ chorus, Mozart also inserted the variety of two trios: the three ladies and the three genii. Both ensembles serve a significant function in moving the complex plot forward. On a more subtle level, they are equally important to the variety of texture and sound that lends Mozart’s score his customary and incomparable balance. The ladies’ music tends toward the passionate and dramatic. The spirits’ music has a more pristine, serene quality.
The Magic Flute is a happily-ever-after tale. To be sure, some genuine suffering takes place along the way. The Queen of the Night’s first demand for revenge in Act I is spine-tingling and terrifying. Pamina’s anguish at Tamino’s silence is heart-rendingly expressed in her lovely Act II aria. And, on the lighter side, even hapless, charming Papageno elicits our sympathy for his plight. Much in the same way that Tamino fell in love with a picture of the beautiful Princess Pamina in the opening scene, Papageno is given a glimpse of his female counterpart, Papagena, in the second act. Later, when blowing his flute fails to bring Papagena back to him, he gives up all hope. Papagena’s timely reappearance changes his despondence to delight. Their restoration to each other is a satisfying plot resolution presented with breathtaking, simple music. Stuttering with joy at the thrill of togetherness, they babble happily about marriage and begetting a family. We are meant to laugh at the endearing innocence of their union.
The magic of the opera’s title occurs on several levels. In the first act, The Queen and her servants, the Three Ladies, bestow upon Tamino the power invested in the magic flute, and they give Papageno magic silver bells. Mozart maximizes both magical instruments in his music, endowing them with mystical, moral and musical symbolism. At the opera’s conclusion, we are left with a myriad of feelings: satisfaction that the good guys have won and secure in the knowledge that true love conquers and that good will prevails over evil. Just as important are the facts that the best fairy tales end happily and, in our case, the music remains utterly without artifice, still fresh and enchanting after more than 230 years.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023