As Mozart Might Have Heard It
The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985
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David M. Greene
For all its clumsy libretto and its sometimes half-baked symbolism, Zauberflote is, at least musically, a masterpiece-and one which, incidentally, marks a real and meaningful beginning for German opera. It is that rare meld, too, of popular and serious theater, and remained immensely popular after Mozart's death. And, properly done, it goes right on working today.
The Magic Flute was the penultimate opera that Mozart began and his last to be produced. Between the ages of 11 and 19 he had written nine. These were either pieces to show off the infant prodigy or occasional works written as one-shot affairs. They have all been recorded, but one suspects that had they not been Mozart's they would go on gathering dust on library shelves.
After a five-year rest, he attempted 11 more in his final decade. Though they include some of the greatest ever written by anyone, most of them in their day, were not howling successes. Three, for whatever reasons, were left unfinished. Of the rest, Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario, given on a double-bill with an opera of Salieri's) was an inconsequential bit of fluff. ldomeneo, written for the Munich carnival, had a single revival by some wealthy Viennese amateurs. Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Escape from the Harem) had "too many notes" for the emperor, though it was played here and there by German-language companies.
Somewhat to his surprise, the emperor liked The Marriage of Figaro; but it had only nine performances before being dropped in Vienna. Of course the folks in Prague went bananas over it and ordered up Don Giovanni for the next season. To be sure, Figaro was revived in Vienna in 1789, but Don Giovanni ran there for only 15 showings, and was not played again in its composer's lifetime. Cosi fan tutte (All Women Do It) struck some as scandalous and was shot down by the death of Emperor Joseph. La clemenza di Tito, to write which Mozart interrupted Zauberflote, was played to celebrate the coronation of Leopold I, who was not a music lover and it quickly disappeared. Only the work under consideration here could have been thought of as a solid hit. It opened on September 30, 1791, and was still packing 'em in when its 35-year-old creator died two months and five days later.
Zauberflote was the brainchild of Emanuel Schikaneder, who almost certainly wrote the libretto. Because Schikaneder was a self-made man with little formal education, some have been tempted by the tardy claim to authorship of Carl Giesecke, a sometime colleague, who later apparently conferred an English knighthood on himself and became Sir Charles Gieseke, Professor of Mineralogy at the University of Dublin. Schikaneder, five years Mozart's senior, had been a friend of the Mozart family for a decade. He had made a name for himself as an actor, especially in the great tragic Shakespearean roles. (Shakespeare was then all the rage in the Germanies, viewed as a "natural" genius who had no need of constricting French rules to write great plays.)
At one point Schikaneder's wife had eloped with a man who became proprietor of the Theater auf der Wieden. When he died in 1789, she offered the theater to Schikaneder if he would take her back, and so, to make a long story brief, he became a successful impresario with a sense of what the public wanted, which included a lot of romantic claptrap mixed with slapstick.
Mozart probably agreed to collaborate partly out of friendship (both men were, not incidentally, Freemasons) and partly because he needed the money. (Schikaneder may, in the end, have failed to pay him!) As he had before, Schikaneder mined a book of fairy tales called Dschinnistan, and came up with one called Lulu, or The Magic Flute. Lulu is, in this case, an Oriental prince who, with the aid of enchanted sword and flute, rescues a fairy's daughter from an evil sorcerer. Onto this, the librettist grafted material from an "Egyptian" novel Sethos by Jean Terasson, and a plot (for his own performance) about a comic birdman named Papageno.
In the creation of it the libretto seems to have "jus' growed" instead of being planned. Somewhere en route to the end the "good fairy'' figure (here the Queen of the Night) turns out to be a villainess and the sorcerer Sarastro (Zoroaster) is unveiled as a benevolent force. As the collaborators began working Masonic ideals into the piece, it became more serious and ceremonial and was elevated-even with the Papageno episodes-to something quite profound and spiritual.
For all its clumsy libretto and its sometimes half-baked symbolism, Zauberflote is, at least musically, a masterpiece-and one which, incidentally, marks a real and meaningful beginning for German opera. It is that rare meld, too, of popular and serious theater, and remained immensely popular after Mozart's death. And, properly done, it goes right on working today. Perhaps no one has realized it better, warts and all, than did Ingmar Bergman in his exquisite film of a decade or so back. (Why isn't it available on videocassette?)
A few words about the recording. It is meant, apparently, to offer such a performance as Mozart might have heard. The orchestra numbers 30, pitch is lowered half a tone from what we would now hear, and strings play with that glassy sound which is supposed to represent baroque practice. The recording was made during actual performance; the audience is pretty quiet except when it wakes up to applaud, but there's a good deal of stage noise. Apart from the mercurial Miss Kweksilber, who has made other records, you're unlikely to have heard of the singers. (For some reason Dutch singers rarely make the Big Time.) They are about what you would hear in a conscientious provincial opera house. Most of the dialogue has been excised, and there are a few musical cuts of no consequence.