Friday, October 11, 2013

Mozart's supreme achievement: The Magic Flute

"The coherence of the Magic Flute style - a fusion of [popular] song, Italian bravura aria and buffo ensemble, German chorale, fugue, religious chorus... learned and popular, sacred and profane, spirit and earth, the musical analogue of the drama's high theme of reconciliation - is...Mozart's supreme achievement as a music-dramatist."
(from Mozart and His Operas, by David Cairns)

That is one way of saying Mozart's operatic "swan-song" has a little bit of everything and something for everyone in it's 2 & 1/2 adventurous hours.

My colleague - and our friend on the Arts beat at the Roanoke Times - Mike Allen, asked me "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?" One version of my answer will appear in his upcoming story (check out the Roanoke Times on Tuesday, Oct 15 for the story).

The chapter devoted to The Magic Flute in Cairns' book (it is the sacred number 7, no less) is entitled "Mozart the Visionary." In a presentation on Mozart's final trio of operas at the W & L Alumni College this summer, I gave The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito subtitles to match Cosi fan Tutte. The latter is also known as "the school for lovers." In that vein, it's not difficult to dub Clemenza "the school for mercy," and Flute, "the school for enlightenment."

On one level, The Magic Flute is purely an allegory for enlightenment values. A vengeful Queen seeks to murder her enemy and usurp his seat of power, using dark forces and any means necessary. The "enlightened" Sarastro embodies the near-universal ideal of "lux ex tenebris" - light out of darkness. (Sarastro was likely based on the Viennese polymath, the scientist and scholar - and master mason - Ignaz von Born). Young initiates embark on a quest and undergo trials. This is at once a mythic romance and a fantastic adventure tale. Inspired by epics like the Odyssey, the Orpheus legend, and ancient Egyptian myths, The Magic Flute is an operatic example of the "timeless classic."

On a deeper level - and Mozart, contrary to the caricature presented in the play and film versions of Amadeus, was a deep thinker with wide philosophical interests - The Magic Flute is a profound meditation on finding meaning in life, answering its questions, and facing its challenges.

(The "Cabinet of Reflection," an image from the original libretto)

In his two male protagonists, the prince Tamino (tenor), and the bird-catcher, Papageno (baritone), Mozart gives us men who are both "stock" characters and real human beings. This is but one sign of his theatrical gift. Tamino accepts the challenge of rescuing the imprisoned princess, and along the way, proves his worth on repeated occasions through old-fashioned virtues like courage, common sense, patience, trust, and fidelity. Papageno is an "everyman" everyone of us can recognize: selfish, opportunistic, and cowardly. His spirit and wit, however, endear him to us, and thanks to that proverbial "second chance," he comes out of the trials with his feathers intact, if not unruffled.

So what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today? It has a lot to say, and it uses an astonishing variety of means with which to communicate. Like the great operas and plays in whose company it holds forth, it is a mirror within which an audience may see itself reflected. This device is used literally in Ingmar Bergman's wonderful film version from 1975.

If you want to come to the theatre to be entertained, Flute is a great opera to just sit back and enjoy. The scenes are short and varied, the dialogue (in English, no less) has its share of slapstick moments, and the music is nothing short of Mozart's best. It is a feast for the ears. If you come to the theatre to be moved, then Mozart will not fail to reach out and touch you, as if the distance between 1791 and 2013 mattered less than the short space between the Jefferson Center stage and the front row of Shaftman Performance Hall.

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