'Magic Flute' shows how to take the base out of those basic instincts

November 15, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The noble youth sees a portrait of the captive princess, falls in love at first sight, and -- armed by her mother, the Queen of the Night, with a magic flute and with the companionship of a good-natured, cowardly lion sort of chap named Papageno -- journeys off to rescue her from an evil sorcerer.

In most fairy tales, things would have proceeded predictably. But Mozart's final opera, "The Magic Flute," which will be presented by the Peabody Opera Theatre for four performances beginning Thursday, is not a just-so story.

The good queen is, in fact, a nightmare; the evil sorcerer, Sarastro, is a beneficent figure, whose paternal warmth and wisdom make him God-like; and Mozart's fairy tale is nothing less than an Age of Enlightenment fable in which the magic of music comes to stand for the gracious transformations worked upon base human appetites by suffering, self-sacrifice and love.

Love -- this is, after all, an opera -- is the most important of these. And it's no accident that Mozart and his librettist, his friend Emanuel Schikaneder, constructed their fable around two sets of lovers who seem to encompass all the varieties of human love: The elevated prince and princess, Tamino and Pamina, whose )) idealistic passion refines and redefines the idea of human community; and the earthier Papageno and Papagena, whose open sexuality and longing for children create the basic unit of all societies.

Destructive instincts

Poised against the achievement of these impulses is the gigantic figure of the Queen of the Night, who represents the unsublimated instincts that would destroy community, setting man against woman and -- in the broadest sense -- man against man. She's a fascinating figure for all manner of reasons, not the least of which is the still current canard that Mozart and Schikaneder originally intended to make her a good figure and changed their minds before the end of the first act. But in a drama that is about how one learns to tell illusion from reality, it makes sense that those who learn the lesson should include the members of the audience. Mozart worked as closely with (and was as demanding of) his librettists as Verdi, Strauss or Puccini, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he created the Queen of the Night.

Her first appearance is as imposing as anything Mozart ever created. An orchestral introduction with insistent violin chords pounding in cross-rhythm over a thrashing bass creates expectations that are matched by the voice we hear: a dramatic soprano with an extended top, capable of making florid runs and dizzying coloratura ascents up to a high F. (It didn't hurt that in his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, Mozart had a soprano who could create such vocal pyrotechnics.)

That the Queen does all this tells us that she may not be quite what the naive Tamino thinks she is. For most opera composers, but for Mozart particularly, the stratospheric coloratura that only women can achieve usually suggests something that is especially and dangerously female -- the agitation that is called hysteria and that was medically associated until late in the last century with disturbances of the uterus. (The word hysteria derives from hystera, the Greek word for womb.)

The Queen of the Night has sisters in other Mozart operas -- in villainesses like Elettra in "Idomeneo" and Vitellia in "La Clemenza di Tito," whose unstable, murderous jealousy is expressed in exactly such dazzling vocal terms, and even "good" characters like Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" and Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte," whose instability and frailty are likewise suggested by such flights of agitated coloratura. A sure key to Mozart's intentions in "The Magic Flute" is the spoken dialogue -- often omitted in productions -- in which Tamino, after the Queen has departed, wonders momentarily if he has been deceived.

What is so terrible about the Queen's feelings -- particularly for a child of the Enlightenment such as Mozart -- is that they represent pure emotion and instinct, hostile to human ties made durable by reason. Of all the great Mozart operas, it's "The Magic Flute" that possesses the most ensembles -- ensembles that musically represent the ideals of mutuality in society.

Ideals of mutuality

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