Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Magic Flute

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

This year on OTF, we have featured our fair share of “complete” Mozart operas: Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tuttecompleted the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy we began a few years ago (and reprised this summer on ITYWLTMT) withLe Nozze di Figaro. A Mozart survey  incomplete without considering his penultimate opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

In preparing for this post, I stumbled onto an interesting opinion/appreciation piece from the London Telegraph, from which I will borrow unashamedly…

Though it is his ultimate work for the stage, few would argue that The Magic Flute was Mozart’s greatest opera. It was designed to be a popular hit in a form of theatre whose conventions have dated badly. And yet with such rough unpromising material he manages to evoke both child-like wonder and rational enlightenment – as well the darker pulsations of life. How does he pull it off?

Flute, first performed in 1791 in a suburban Viennese theatre, was dubbed a Singspiel - literally meaning Sing-speak – which combines spoken dialogue with arias and ensembles, and relies on spectacular visual effects to keep the crowd happy. Interestingly in his letters Mozart referred to it as an opera – he evidently had a more serious outlook on the piece. He wrote the music to the words of his friend Emanuel Schikaneder, an actor, impresario and fellow enthusiast for the freemasons – a group whose rational ideals had a powerful influence on the opera.

This brings me to a somewhat rhetorical (and maybe unimportant) question: is this opera a comedy or a drama. I won’t go and apply buffa or seria here, but rather whether the overall tone is light or dark…

The plot here is more akin to a fairy tale than to a romantic comedy: a noble prince is ordered by the mysterious Queen of the Night to rescue a beautiful princess who has been kidnapped. We are launched from the opening moments right in the thick of action. A serpent is attacking Prince Tamino, the hero, when three ladies appear from nowhere and save him. This scene, like many in the opera, could as easily be played for laughs or as genuinely scary.

And there are plot twists – who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys”? Sent on a chivalresque mission by the Queen, when Tamino eventually meets the kidnapper Sarastro and his temple-goers, they turn out to be anything but evil. In the opera’s iconic aria, the Queen orders her daughter to murder Sarastro, pushing the human voice to breaking point by climbing to the highest of high notes. This isn’t Mozart simply gunning for impressive effects: it’s meant to express anger beyond words.

Ultimately, for this stage work to be truly effective (and leave a lasting impression), it requires great staging. The comic parts have to be played comically, and the serious parts seriously. An audio performance (as the one I propose today) may not present the work “in full light” – we rely here on the projection and characterizations by the soloists and, of course, on the music’s nervous energy, oscillating between sadness and joy.

Here you go, my holiday gift for 2015!

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflote, K. 620
Opera in two acts, german libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder

Pamina: Julia Kleiter
Queen of the Night: Albina Shagimuratova
Tamino: Matthew Polenzani
Papageno: Nathan Gunn
Speaker: David Pittsinger
Sarastro: Hans-Peter König

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Adam Fischer, condicting
Met Opera live broadcast April 10, 2010

Synopsis - http://www.opera-arias.com/mozart/di...B6te/synopsis/
Libretto - http://www.opera-arias.com/mozart/di...B6te/libretto/

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