Mozart’s Magic Flute Enchanting
in Los Angeles Opera Production
by: Harley Schlanger
“Die Zauberflote ” (“The Magic Flute”)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Los Angeles Opera
January 10-25, 2009
To those critics who pointed out that in the Los Angeles Opera production of “The Magic Flute,” Monostatos was green instead of black, with an outrageously large belly, or were scandalized by Papageno's cod-piece, I have only one thing to say: Sorry, but you missed one of the crucial factors which makes Mozart who he is, i.e., his playfulness. Mozart was able to combine the most serious matters -– in this case, the development of a philosopher king -- with an enchanting, over-the-top, raucous fairy tale. So loosen up a little, and enjoy. Lessons in statecraft do not have to be ponderous!
The production in Los Angeles was a delight. It was both whimsical and profound, combining slapstick with deep philosophical insights. Most important, the music was superb, the singing clear and powerful, with varied colors and transparency, just as Mozart intended.
“The Magic Flute” is one of those special works of art which transcends time and place. It was composed by Mozart at the height of his creative powers, as a crowning achievement of a burst of productivity in his last months of his life, during which he also composed the wonderful opera, “La Clemenza de Tito,” his clarinet concerto, the sublime “Ave Verum Corpus,” and the “Requiem” mass.
These prodigious accomplishments were the product of a revolution in composition, which grew out of Mozart's immersion in the works of Johann Sebastien Bach, upon his arrival in Vienna a decade earlier. Mozart had the good fortune of receiving an invitation to participate in a weekly salon, held on Sunday afternoons, at the home of Baron von Swieten.
The Baron, a musician, as well as a former Ambassador serving Emperor Joseph II, had returned from an assignment in Berlin, at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, with a collection of works by Bach. These works became the subject of the weekly gatherings at his home, as some of the finest musicians in Vienna gathered. Among those who attended were Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, who was already established as one of the leading composers of the time.
At the Baron's salon, Mozart and his collaborators worked through, with great rigor, some of Bach's most important compositions, including “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” “The Art of the Fugue,” and “The Musical Offering.” These sessions generated a musical revolution, centered around Bach's counterpoint, which enabled Haydn to transform the string quartet, with his “Russian Quartets” (Opus 33). Mozart developed this “new” style further, in the six quartets he dedicated to Haydn. In his last decade, following his encounter with Bach's works at the Baron's salon, Mozart continued to advance this revolution. “The Magic Flute” is a product of this revolution*
A Revolution in Opera
This development coincided with another in Joseph II's court, with profound implications for opera. There had been a campaign waged in the 1760s to establish a “national theater,” led by the dramatist and philosopher, Gotthold Lessing. It was Lessing's belief that a German language theater would aid in the development of Germany as a nation.
There were some in the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II -– including the Emperor himself –- who thought this a worthy project. The first opera which Mozart composed for the Emperor's court in Vienna was a German-language singspiel, “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” with a German libretto. Beginning with this opera, Mozart transformed the stage. His characters were not stereotypes, nor mythical figures, lacking recognizable human traits. They were people with emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns with which theater-goers could identify. They moved, they conspired, they yearned, they communicated ideas –- all of which they expressed through music of the sort never heard before.
The musical revolution, which grew out of the Mozart-Haydn collaboration in studying, and applying, Bach's counterpoint, combined with the revolution in drama launched by Lessing, are powerfully integrated in “The Magic Flute.” This is no mere fairy tale, though it has elements which one could find in a good fairy tale: magic bells and flute; dancing animals; a serpent; three cherubic boys, who provide wise guidance to the hero, while floating in the air; etc., etc.
But it is also a story with Platonic themes, such as the necessity of seeking truth, not relying on one's senses or “public opinion” to form judgments, and commitment to principles of Reason as the basis for universal brotherhood. While the Masonic symbolism is well known, and oft commented upon, Prince Tamino's success in passing the tests qualifies him, additionally, as that most noble of all figures for Mozart's circles, Plato's philosopher king – with Pamina emerging, as well, as one of the initiates, shall we say, a philosopher queen?
Yet, Tamino does not begin as a philosopher king. His transformation is quite remarkable. When he first appears on stage, he is hardly heroic, fainting, while being pursued by a serpent. He then falls in love with a portrait, and is convinced, by a somewhat frightening woman, the Queen of the Night, to destroy the allegedly sinister Sarastro, who has kidnapped her daughter – Tamino's newly-discovered beloved.
This propels him into an adventure of intellectual discovery, in which he must challenge those “truths” which he had been given by the Queen. The ultimate triumph is not that of a brave warrior, but one who must be courageous enough to discover the truth, and whose courage is then tested, to prepare him to be the true philosopher king.
The story of “The Magic Flute” is, thus, both fanciful and profound. What makes it immortal is the incredible music of Mozart. Working with his long-time acquaintance, Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, and developed the role of Papageno –- who, in addition to having an entrepreneurial sense when it came to filling a theater, was also a very competent Shakespearean actor, as part of Lessing's project to create a German National Theater -– Mozart combined delightful, whimsical touches of the fairy tale, with arias and duets with delicate counterpoint, with a dense Bachian fugue preceding the tests which would determine whether Tamino and Pamina would become legitimate leaders, or die trying.
Opera Cast Triumphant
A successful performance of “The Magic Flute” begins with the orchestra. The pacing must be exact, not rushed at the beginning of the Overture, but building rapidly in tempo as a sense of urgency is introduced into the story. It must be crisp and textured, as Mozart's orchestra is not there to “accompany” the singers, but to add one, two, many voices to the counterpoint. As usual, James Conlon, who conducted the L.A.Opera's production, was superb.
Of special note, among the leading characters, were Nathan Gunn, who played Papageno, and Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night. Gunn presented a graceful, pleasing Papageno, with a rich voice and, as an actor, he brought out the full character of the “everyman,” who, when presented with a rare opportunity to rise above his destiny in life, briefly flirts with the idea, but then falls back into seeking a comfort zone. Shagimuratova, who performed the same role with great acclaim in Houston last year, hit the notes in the upper register with power to spare, sending chills down the spine of every man in the theater who has, or knows of, a mother-in-law with that terrifying vocal range! (She is presently appearing as Gilda in “Rigoletto” in Houston, where she displays a warmth which is missing in Mozart's musical characterization of the Queen!)
Matthew Polenzani, as Tamino, gave glimpses of a powerful voice on the night I attended, though he was a bit stiff at the beginning. Marie Arnet gave Pamina a wonderful warmth, from her duet with Papageno, to her strong finish with Tamino. She was also very effective in the scene when her mother attempts to use her wiles to manipulate her back into her personal war against Sarastro.
The one exception to my general defense of the costumes was that of Sarastro's minions, who looked as though they came from the set of Planet of the Apes, or perhaps from an old episode of Star Trek. This was a bad choice, as their appearance was a diversion from the excellent individual performances of Gunther Groissbock as Sarastro and Matthias Goerne as The Speaker, and the fine overall performance by the Chorus.