After seeing Julia Jones conduct Mozart’s The Magic Flute (or Die Zauberflöte) at The Royal Opera in London, here is a reflection on the important elements of the opera and its translation to a modern audience.
by Simon Critchlow
It’s 1791 and all is well for W. A. Mozart. He’s off to the theatre to see his mates, doubtless have a few drinks and see how his latest opera goes down with the Viennese public. The opera was a great success. It captured the public’s imagination and is put on hundreds of times over the next 10 years all across Europe.
So what is it about this work that makes it so, well magical? And what does it all mean?
The real magic happens within Mozart’s sparkling score. Written with the ability of the original singers in mind, it bears all the Mozartian hallmarks: gorgeous vocal writing, sumptuous harmonies, particularly in the duets and trios, spectacular coloratura (singers showing off), subtle but affective orchestration and more tunes than you can shake a stick at. The Queen of the Night’s “Der Holle Rach”….
… is rightly famous, although her first aria also contains some mind bending vocal gymnastics.
The twist in the tale, revealed rather early, that the King Sarastro is not the evil scoundrel the Queen of the Night’s three minions make him out to be keeps the interest and misery in the story and the magical elements give the opera an fairytale feel reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy stories.
The use of spoken word sections (the opera is a Singspiel) means there is very little of the occasionally dreary recitatives that can plague lesser operas and the whole thing runs a bit like a greatest hits reel. This also gives the singers an opportunity to show off their acting skills; which can be something of a mixed blessing depending on the casting.
There is a satisfying conclusion as the guys get the girls, the evil Queen of the night gets her comeuppance and all celebrate the great life and times that are overseen by the malevolent King Sarastro.
Within the opera there are several allusions to other subjects, fairy tales being the most obvious but also enlightenment are ideals, the magic power of music to charm and disarm, the strength of friendship to ward off negative influences, Egyptian Gods, and some ideas found in Freemasonry. Much has been made of the latter, including some readings of the opera as a kind of masonic manifesto. The reality is unlikely to be as simplistic as this, the opera company were essentially in the business to put on a successful production.
To give it it’s fizz, the librettist and company cleverly included allusions to many things that were simply popular and prevalent at the time. Like a sophisticated Da Vinci Code, the popular audience would I’m sure have been delighted, and possibly somewhat smug in the tavern afterwards, that they could recognise and relate to many of the plot devices and themes in the opera.
The opera is not without its weak points. Most problematic is that the hero of the piece Tamino literally does nothing heroic whatsoever except play the flute and not talk to someone for 5 minutes. Now the flute is not an easy instrument, I’ll grant you, and it is sometimes tricky to keep your mouth shut but you would generally expect a bit more from the main character in an opera in which a major plot point is triumph in trials of adversity.
To a modern audience the blatant sexist content is at first historically amusing then grating and annoying and the blink and you’ll miss it resolution of the plot points in act II may leave you looking at your fellow audience members with a quizzical look that says “is that it?” And for all the brilliance of Mozart’s score it does not contain his most beautiful music, for that you’ll need to explore is late piano concertos, clarinet concerto and his other vocal works, particularly the Mass in C minor.
So what to make of all of it? Well, if you are about to see a production, just turn up, sit down and prepare to be royally entertained. Because in the end, The Magic Flute is simply a brilliantly and enthralling piece of theatre.