Among my favorite works by Mozart is The Magic Flute. It was Mozart’s last opera, premiering in Vienna on September 30, 1791. Mozart died on December 5. I should point out that calling it an “opera” is not entirely accurate. It’s really a Singspiel, somewhat allied to the ballad opera also popular in the eighteenth century, but more closely akin to the later operetta and even the American musical, in that it is composed of both spoken and sung passages, has an original score and a libretto — what on Broadway is known as the “book.” It was really a popular entertainment (those who have seen the film Amadeus may remember the ambience of the scenes of the rehearsal and performance of this work — somewhere between a rock concert and a Saturday matinee, with beer). In many respects it’s a comic work, but I don’t think anyone would argue against its place in the repertoires of the world’s great opera companies.
Tamino, a prince of Egypt, is being pursued by a dragon. As seems to be the case with most eighteenth-century heroes, at least in comic operas, when push comes to shove, he faints. When he wakes he is confronted by Papageno, a birdcatcher, who claims to have saved him. The Three Ladies, servants of the Queen of the Night, who had actually been the ones to rescue Tamino, appear and punish Papageno by padlocking his mouth, which leads to several extraordinarily funny scenes — Papageno under normal circumstances finds it almost impossible to keep his mouth shut. After Tamino has gotten his assignment from the Queen of the Night — to rescue her daughter Pamina from the clutches of Sarastro, the priest of Isis and Osiris, with marriage to her as his reward — they set off on their way, Tamino with a magic flute and Papageno, unpadlocked, with a set of bells for protection. The two adventurers arrive at the temple of Isis and Osiris, where Tamino is told he may have Pamina if he passes an ordeal. And, it seems that Sarastro also has under his care a woman who is perfectly suited to Papageno. Needless to say, the heroes pass their tests, the couples are united, and Monostatos, a servant of Sarastro who has turned traitor, is cast out when he appears with the Queen of the Night to destroy the temple.
Commentators often call attention to the opera’s Masonic elements, which is no surprise: there is a strong element of ritual mysticism in the story, and both Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist (who also originated the role of Papageno) were Masons and, in fact, lodge brothers. There. I’ve commented on it.
What’s going to be much more important to most audiences is simply the fact that the music is glorious. This is Mozart at the height of his powers, and I can’t think of many operas that span this range of mood — broad comedy, high drama, mysticism, reverence, idyllic interludes, wit, majesty, intimacy: it’s all there and it’s all beautiful.
James Levine is a legendary conductor of opera. His sense of the music is unerring and his control of the forces arrayed equally so. The cast, individually and in ensemble, is remarkable. I was particularly struck by the strength displayed by Eric Tappy as Tamino — his is a powerful voice that can drop to a caressing softness, and throughout he expresses all the youth and virility that one could wish. Christian Boesch as Papageno brings a lightness to his interpretation that is often missing and is perfectly right for the role.
The show-stopper for me, however, was Zdislawa Donat’s Queen of the Night, one of the most vocally demanding roles in this or any other opera. Her delivery of “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” the famous “Queen of the Night’s aria” that is a prime test of coloratura singing, is crystalline, precise and absolutely clean. It stopped me cold, and when I went back and listened again to other parts of the opera, I discovered that she maintains that clarity throughout. It’s breathtaking, and has the effect of reinforcing an otherworldly quality in the role that is exactly right.
One other highlight, and it’s going to be a highlight in any recording: the “Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena!” duet when Papageno and Papagena are finally united, which is probably one of the funniest bits of classical music anywhere and one of my favorites. Boesch and Elizabeth Kales as Papagena manage the very difficult feat of making this into a love song while losing none of the comedy. Bravi!
So, this recording? Rather than any of the numerous others, I should say. It has a lot to recommend it, although my own feeling is you have to really work at it to screw up The Magic Flute. My vinyl standby has been the DGG recording under Karl Böhm, which also contains some stellar performances (notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno). I think I’m going to cop out and not play favorites. It’s really a hard decision, and fortunately I don’t have to make it — I already have them both.
At any rate, The Magic Flute certainly merits a place in your basic library of classical music, and my own feeling is that you can’t go wrong with this recording.
Personnel: Pamina: Ileana Cotrubas, soprano; Tamino: Eric Tappy, tenor; Papageno: Christian Boesch, baritone; Sarastro: Martti Talvela, bass; Queen of the Night: Zdislawa Donat, soprano (spoken by Angelika Welzl); Monostatos: Horst Hiestermann, tenor; Speaker: José Van Dam, bass; Papagena: Elizabeth Kales, soprano; The Three Ladies: Rachel Yakar, soprano, Trudeliese Schmidt, soprano, Ingrid Mayr, mezzo-soprano; Three Boys: Markus Huber, Thomas Paulsen, Christian Baumgartner; Two Priests: Peter Weber, tenor, Horst Nitsche, bass; Two Men in Armor: Karl Terkal, tenor, Helge von Böaut;mches, bass; Six Slaves: Gerhard Eder, Fritz Peschke, Gerhard Panzenböaut;ck, Wolfgang Scheider, Tibor Toth, Christian Spatzek; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Helmuth Froschauer, chorus master; The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levin, conductor.
(Sony BMG Musical Entertainment, 2006 [orig. BMG Music, 1981])