Die Zauberflöte

Article by James Naughtie, 1997

A few years ago, a Magic Flute audience had the unusual experience of passing en masse through the heavy doors of the Masonic Temple in Great Queen Street, the white building that looms up there like a hybrid of Milan railway station and the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City.  For most of them, I imagine, this was something they had not expected to have a chance to do, and although everyone was there to listen to Mozart (I am never one to insult opera audiences) I’m sure a good number came mainly to see what had been the unseeable.  This was a mystery which they hoped might be in part, revealed.

It wasn’t, of course.  The rich symmetry of the architecture was dazzling – all those deductions from the dimensions of Solomon’s temple – and the Masonic symbols were there.  A bewildering number of doors opened into small rooms, and a number of glass cases displayed regalia and memorabilia from the history of Freemasonry in this country.  Others were covered by cloths, politely concealed from outsiders’ eyes.  Some corridors seemed to go nowhere.  And as the audience trooped into the Great Hall I imagine that few were much the wider about exactly what went on in these rooms.  But the Hall, square of course, and with the heavy decorations of an imposed and imposing style, was a magnificent space for theatre and it seemed quite natural to have a performance there.

Yet it was never free of that sense of lingering puzzlement as the characters came and went from the four corners and the music soared up to a roof decorated with symbols that only the initiated would understand.  I, for one, was glad to have the opera’s mysteries set in stone.  You have to remember that if they are revealed, in the sense of become crystal clear to the eye, there isn’t much point to the opera.

That is not to say that it helps to know nothing of the material Mozart used.  Obviously, the trials to which Tamino and Papageno are subjected in Act 2 are taken more or less directly from Masonic ceremonies which Mozart knew well.  In the last two centuries endless commentaries have been written on the opera’s musical form – everyone starting by pointing out that the opening key of Eb has the special significance for Masons because they do everything in threes, or so it is said.  This may be fascinating, but it is hardly the point.  An audience won’t enjoy The Magic Flute by subjecting it to some kind of historical analysis, with a smuggled Masonic textbook in hand.  Understand a little, but not too much.  That’s the trick.

Opera which deals with such idealised concepts as the ‘goodness’ in The Magic Flute presents the difficulty of an almost inevitable collision between the human drama, involving people we can recognise, and the almost theoretical portrayal of good and evil going on around them, away over their head.  It lays many traps for producers, who can be tempted either into too ‘realistic’ a treatment, which may seem inadequate, or something so remote that it does not seem to make sense.  Rather like the surroundings of a Masonic temple, there needs to be enough to suggest an explanation, but not enough to give one that seems to remove the ‘magic’ from the opera and make it something prosaic.

It’s important that the score is not at all confusing, in the sense of taking you into realms that are cloudy and mysterious.  From the very opening threefold chords in Eb Mozart establishes a feeling of order. Papageno, an obvious representation of something that is ‘natural’, with his birds and feathers, is the counterpoint in his music to an overriding feeling of solemnity and order.  The pipes – and the flute itself – may speak of human capriciousness and joy.  But the musical mood established from the opening bars is something that is much grander and, by its nature, incomprehensible.

The question for any audience is whether the score, produced in the last year of Mozart’s life while he began work on the Requiem, succeeds in making the ‘real’ story on the stage and the higher elements come together naturally.  Sarastro must become a figure who means something more than generalised goodness, yet he must still retain a degree of mystery.   This is a matter of demonstration rather than explanation:   you can’t explain the mechanics of Sarastro’s power (any more than you can explain how the Queen of the Night works her magic) but you can allow them to be represented musically in a way that, you hope, will leave the very mysteries seeming natural, a kind of picture of the ways things are.  Just as most religions come to a point where the leap of faith has to take over from a problem-solving approach, so this meant to be a demonstration rather than a solution.

It works best when the innocence seems pure.  Tamino and Papageno have to walk through the fire as characters whose simplicity we cherish.  Within the first half hour their music has established their characters.  Tamino’s aria places him as a passionate figure of innocence, whose ardour is a natural outpouring rather than the product of any experience.  It’s a pure stream that flows from him.  The orchestra seems to weave around him delicately, almost as if he’s being wrapped in a protective embrace for the rigours ahead.  The Queen of the Night does her thing, which could hardly be a greater contrast to the songs of the bird catcher and the prince, an aria that is, above all, strange.  I confess I wouldn’t take it to a Desert Island – who would?  – but that is its point.  It has to turn the world of Tamino and Papageno into something that will not conform to the rules they’ve known.  When she’s finished, you know it is all beginning.

It is a fact that the Magic Flue was popular with the audiences from the start.  It was the ‘German opera’ ordered by the Emperor, using some of the traditions of singspiel (literally song-play) in the use of spoken dialogue, and it used conventions that audiences understood.  But it always had enemies, who couldn’t escape from the limitations of the libretto (which can produce such lame stage business) or who couldn’t reconcile the human and divine elements.  George Bernard Shaw excoriated Ruskin for his dismissal of it with this great blast:  ‘The generation which could see nothing in Die Zauberflöte but a silly extravaganza was one which Mr Ruskin certainly belonged to in point of time; and he has for once sunk to the average level of its thought in this shallow criticism of the work which Mozart deliberately devoted to the expression of his moral sympathies. Everything that is true and vital in his worship of music would be shattered if it were a fact – happily it is not – that the music of Sarastro came from a silly and trivial mood’.

The ‘expression of moral sympathies’ is indeed the point.  In that respect, this is a simple opera.   The music suggests that at the very start, and so it proves.  By erecting an ordered world, and charting a determined progress through its dark places, Mozart maps out the territory on which he wants to stand.  That is straightforward and easily understood.  It’s only when over-fussy producers complicate Sarastro’s world that it becomes too peculiar to sustain the moral simplicity of the opera (a recent, dreadful production comes to mind, which had better stay anonymous).

Mystery and simplicity aren’t incompatible.  A sense of the unknown, and the unknowable, has to swim around the world of this opera.  But at the same time it is unambiguous about who wins and who loses, and why.  Indeed, the opera asserts that the two feelings are bounded together.  Moral certainties, in our world, involve powers and feelings beyond us which we have to accept we’ll never fully comprehend.  You don’t have to be a Freemason to know that; just a human being.

James Naughtie presents Today on BBC Radio 4 and is a regular presenter of Opera on BBC Television and Radio 3