Die Zauberflote – The Magic Flute

“Die Zauberflote” or “The Magic Flute” an opera in three acts, with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and libretto by Amanuel Schickaneder, was first produced in Vienna, September 30, 1791, Mozart directing. The text, adapted from a tale by Wieland, “Lulu or the Magic Flute,” is in meaning so baffling that, like Poe’s “Raven,” it has received a thousand interpretations. It has in it considerable matter which can be taken as having Masonic significance, while other portions are merely the fantastic factors of a fairy opera. The book was arranged by Schickaneder, a dissipated theatrical manager, who wished a work in which there was a role for him that would permit him to wear a suit of feathers. He conceived the character of Papageno and succeeded in inducing Mozart, who was a fellow Mason, to compose the music. It was Mozart’s last operatic work and was written a few months before his death.

Characters

  • Sarastro, High Priest
  • The Queen of Night
  • Pamina, her daughter
  • Tamino, and Oriental Prince
  • Papageno
  • Papagena
  • Three Ladies of the Queen
  • The Speaker
  • Two Priests
  • Two armed men
  • Three Genii
  • Monostatos, chief of the slaves
  • Chorus, priests, genii, armed men and slaves

The scene of this queer and disjointed tale, with its puzzling allegory and its absurd characters, is laid in Egypt. The Queen of the Night, whose attributes are not altogether worthy, has a fair and virtuous daughter, Pamina, who has been enticed away by Sarastro, a priest of Isis, who wishes to educate her in the ways of wisdom and understanding, while removed from the evil influence of her mother. The Queen, in distress, calls upon the brave prince, Tamino, who has been saved by her attendants from a serpent, to recover her daughter as the price of his rescue. As he is about to start forth gladly upon his mission, he is given as a companion by the Queen’s attendants, the bird-catcher, merry Papageno. Papageno, with his jolly tricks and his witty tongue, furnishes the humorous element in the opera. The two knights receive presents from the Queen. The prince is given a magic flute, which will give him favor and power, while the buffoon receives a magical instrument constructed from little silver bells, the sound of which can turn wrath into merriment.

Meantime, the education of Pamina is not proving an unadulterated joy to that young lady, for she is pursued with declarations of love by the negro servant, Monostatos. Papageno has the happiness to deliver her from these frightful attentions, the victory being easy, for the negro flees, thinking from Papageno’s feathery dress that the bird-catcher is the devil himself. Tamino goes at once to demand an audience with the high priest but is refused admittance, though assured that the princess is safe and that Sarastro has only her benefit on his mind. With lighter heart the youth begins to play on his magic flute and Papageno’s bells answer in the distance. Sarastro now appears and it soon develops that he is planning for Tamino’s reformation also. The youth is forced to serve a term as novitiate, and at last is worthy to be initiated into the mysteries of Isis but not before both he and the now reconciled Pamina pass through the various stages of purification. That last ordeal consists in walking through the burning lake to the very altar itself, their progress always encourages by the music of the magic flute.

The Queen of the Night, wroth at the turn affairs have taken, plots revenge against Sarastro. She visits her daughter in a dream and gives her a dagger, which she urges her to use to slay the priest. Failing in this plan, for Pamina now is thoroughly convinced of his nobility, the Queen prevails upon the negro to attempt to kill him but these wicked efforts come to naught. Finally, when Tamino and Pamina have proved themselves worthy, they are united and even Papageno is made happy. He had been on the verge of hanging himself for loneliness at the loss of his companion but when reminded of his bells, he shakes them and Papagena appears, a feathery bride, the counterpart of himself. The gloomy influence of the evil night is dissipated and sunshine and happiness reward fidelity.

Criticism

“A plot so hopeless that, after the first few scenes, we give it up in despair; an atmosphere of magic which is merely an excuse for absurdities; a set of characters who are as ineffectual in action as they are unaccountable in motive; a bird-catcher dressed in feathers with a padlock on his lips; a goddess from the machine who cuts every knot which stupidity could tie; such was the harleguinade which Schickaneder handed over and which Mozart has turned into a living breathing masterpiece.

As we listen to the music, the doggerel verses cease to annoy us, and, most wonderful of all, the characters grow into distinct being and personality. The magic on Tamino’s flute has passed into the hands of the composer himself and before it all, criticism lies powerless and spellbound. Indeed, if we want a ready measure of Mozart’s genius, we have but to read his libretto and remember that, after witnessing a performance of the opera, Goethe seriously proposed to supplement it with a second part.”

Above is the verdict of Hadow on “The Magic Flute,” a verdict which the rest of the world has come to endorse.

The overture to this opera is one of Mozart’s finest instrumental compositions.