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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Dangers of Cutting the Foot From a Flute

An argument for performing all of Die Zauberflöte.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Photo by D. Mitchell

Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute is Mozart's final opera, and one that is frequently encountered as a recommended work for those exploring the world of opera for the first time. Written in German but frequently performed (in this country at least) in English. it remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a bird costume: a combination of low music hall comedy, Masonic mystery play and singspiel, the German style of opera that was prevalent in the latter years of the eighteenth century.

The opera came about as a collaboration between Mozart and his friend and fellow Mason Emanuel Schickeenader. Schickenader, one of the most important theatrical figures in Mozart's Vienna, was a friend of Mozart's since 1780, when the composer was still based in Salzburg. After Mozart's marriage and move to Vienna, his opera Der Entführung aus dem Serail enjoyed a long and popular run at Schickenader's German-language theater, the Theater Auf der Wieden. In September of 1791, the two friends unveiled their one and only opera together. Mozart would be dead in December.

There's a lot going on in the libretto of The Magic Flute. It is the story of a young Prince, Tamino, and his quest (initially) to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, from the grip of the wizard Sarastro. However, in a development mirroring the Masonic path of wisdom and initiation, he learns that Sarastro is a kindly figure, and that the Queen symbolizes darkness and ignorance. The story of Pamina and Tamino is a conventional fairy tale, and the two characters endure a series of trials before both are initiated into Sarastro's priesthood at the opera's end.

But then there's Papageno. An itinerant, ignorant bird-catcher who only wants to eat, drink and possibly meet a female of similar plumage, this is the part that Schickenader wrote for himself. A favorite of baritones, he sings in simple, catchy songs that are quick to enchant the ear. He also provides the opera with much-needed comic relief, peppering Tamino's quest for enlightenment with blunt questions and sarcastic commentary. Papageno is the everyman in the audience, along for a ride he does not quite understand.

The musical world these figures move through is extraordinary. Mozart's melodies have the perfection of form that one becomes familiar with in his style. Each act has a challenging, high-flying aria for the Queen of the Night. A coloratura soprano, she follows that baroque operatic trope that high, florid ornamentation is a reflection of great emotional distress or possible insanity. In fact she has something in common with the sorceress Armida, a figure in the operas of Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn and Glück.

Tamino gets a memorable aria in the first act: "Die bildnis." This ode to Panina's picture is an outpouring of emotion, very much in the opera seria style. Pamina's personality unveils itself in her first number, a kind and gentle duet with Papageno, "Bei mannern." The humanist words of Schickenader's libretto reflect the changing sentiments of Europe on the brink of the enlightenment, a plea for brotherhood that would later be picked up in the music of Beethoven. Unbelievably, some performances cut these perfectly formed arias in half for time, leaving mutlated shards that do not have the same emotional effect as the full work.

There are other musical riches that too often fall under the knife of the producer wanting to cut Flute down in an effort to make it digestible to young opera-goers. Most of these efforts do little to help the opera. Cutting scenes like the extraordinary duet for Two Men in Armor (they do nothing to advance the plot but Mozart's writing for tenor and bass voices in unison is otherworldly) robs The Magic Flute of that which makes it extraordinary, rendering it a dull and rather uninteresting musical instrument.

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