Premiering on September 30, 1791, “Die Zauberflöte,” or “The Magic Flute” in English, is the last of the works composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, barring his unfinished Requiem.
Much like an operetta, “Die Zaubeflöte” is a singspiel, which has spoken dialogue between musical numbers and arias. Working with German librettist Emanuel Shikaneder, the opera contains a vast number of influences, from the folk style of arias for characters Papageno and Papagena, to the mysterious Queen of the Night, thought to be an allusion to the oppressive attitudes of the Catholic Church toward Freemasonry. Both Mozart and Shikaneder ,being Masons, highlight themes of Enlightenment-era thinking in regards to the virtue of mankind and the governance of a nation.
Short Plot Summary
The opera begins with Tamino, a prince from a distant country, being pursued by a giant serpent. Before fainting, he pleads for divine aid, and the serpent is killed by three servants of the Queen of the Night before they depart. In their absence, Tamino meets Papageno, a bird-catcher who takes credit for killing the serpent before his lie is revealed upon the return of the servants. They charge Tamino with a great undertaking: he is to rescue the princess Pamina, who has been abducted by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. Showing Tamino a portrait of the princess and causing him to fall in love instantly, the Queen of the Night assures him that she will give him the hand of Pamina in marriage if he is able to rescue her. To aid Tamino and Papageno in this endeavor, they are given a magic flute with the power to enchant listeners, magic bells for protection, and three spirits to guide their way to Sarastro’s temple.
At the temple, Tamino and Papageno split up; Tamino enters through the front, where he meets The Speaker, a wise old priest who assures him that not only is Sarastro a beloved and rational leader, but that the Queen of the Night is not to be trusted. Meanwhile, Papageno discovers Pamina in the captivity of the lustful Monostatos, chief of the slaves. Each man is terrified of the other due to their absurd appearances, they flee long enough for Papageno, after mustering his courage, to free Pamina, who delights to hear word of an approaching, enamored prince.
All three are eventually captured and brought before Sarastro. The sorcerer is sympathetic to their purposes but stipulates that Pamino must undergo trials of wisdom in order to become worthy of marrying Pamina. These trials involve various temptations presented either directly or indirectly by the female characters, through which Tamino and Papageno must remain totally silent. While the latter breaks the vow of silence often, Tamino remains steadfast, causing Pamina to believe he no longer cares for her when he refuses to answer her.
Pamina is saved from suicide from the three guardian spirits, who assure her of Tamino’s love just in time for her to aid him, now free from his vow of silence, through the final trial of chambers of fire and water. Together they emerge victorious and are allowed re-admittance into Sarastro’s temple. Outside the temple, Monostatos and the Queen of the Night have made an agreement: Pamina will marry Monostatos in exchange for his assistance in destroying the temple. Before they can enter, they are cast through magic into an eternal night. With their enemies banished and the lovers triumphant, Sarastro declares the coming of a new age of love and fraternity.
Famous Musical Numbers
Almost every single piece of music in this opera is a major hit.
The arias of the Queen of the Night are noted for their exceptional difficulty, requiring a rapid coloratura to paint a wide breadth of unstable emotionality. The role was originated by Josepha Hofer, who was sister-in-law to Mozart.
Tamino’s aria, “Dies Bildnis,” is one of the gorgeous in the tenor repertoire, and also one of the most difficult. Papageno’s music is also quite renowned for its particular character and sonar world, while Sarastro’s own musical style is a deep contrast to the Queen of the Night’s fiery, virtuosic music, as exhibited by his “O Isis und Osiris.”
Watch and Listen
Here is a recording from Salzburg featuring two of the leading interpreters of the opera in recent years, René Pape and Diana Damrau.