The Magic Flute, Opera by W. A. Mozart
The Magic Flute is the most surprising yet, at the same time, the most accessible of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s twenty-two operas. It was also, perhaps, his most dangerous: a two-act singspiel whose roots in popular Viennese theatre and fairy-tale setting disguise a political allegory of the struggle between the values of the Enlightenment and absolutism.
The Queen of the Night promises Prince Tamino, if he can rescue her daughter, Pamina, from Sarastro, a sorcerer, that he may have Pamina’s hand in marriage. Tamino is supported in his quest by Papageno, a witless but well-meaning bird-catcher.
When they find Pamina, Sarastro reveals himself to be her guardian rather than her kidnapper; it is the Queen who has betrayed her daughter by allying herself with the brutish Monostatos who lusts after, rather than loves, Pamina. Tamino and Papageno are set three challenges by Sarastro to prove their worthiness. While Tamino, placing his trust in Sarastro’s intentions, is rewarded for suspending his disbelief, Papageno, somewhat less successful in the trials, owes his own happy ending to Sarastro’s munificence.
Premiered on 30 September 1791 at the Theater auf der Wieden in what was then the outskirts of Vienna, the circumstances of The Magic Flute’s first performance were as far removed as it is possible to imagine from those that had led to La clemenza di Tito only weeks before; an opera specifically commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II.
It would be easy to make the mistake of seeing The Magic Flute, which now comes to the Wiener Staatsoper, written specifically for a popular audience, as the perfect antidote to its predecessor; in fact, its themes, quite brilliantly, continue to showcase Mozart’s readiness to champion rather than undermine authority, when it shows itself to be benevolent.