'Magic Flute' shows how to take the base out of those basic instincts

The noble youth sees a portrait of the captive princess, falls in love at first sight, and -- armed by her mother, the Queen of the Night, with a magic flute and with the companionship of a good-natured, cowardly lion sort of chap named Papageno -- journeys off to rescue her from an evil sorcerer.

In most fairy tales, things would have proceeded predictably. But Mozart's final opera, "The Magic Flute," which will be presented by the Peabody Opera Theatre for four performances beginning Thursday, is not a just-so story.


The good queen is, in fact, a nightmare; the evil sorcerer, Sarastro, is a beneficent figure, whose paternal warmth and wisdom make him God-like; and Mozart's fairy tale is nothing less than an Age of Enlightenment fable in which the magic of music comes to stand for the gracious transformations worked upon base human appetites by suffering, self-sacrifice and love.

Love -- this is, after all, an opera -- is the most important of these. And it's no accident that Mozart and his librettist, his friend Emanuel Schikaneder, constructed their fable around two sets of lovers who seem to encompass all the varieties of human love: The elevated prince and princess, Tamino and Pamina, whose )) idealistic passion refines and redefines the idea of human community; and the earthier Papageno and Papagena, whose open sexuality and longing for children create the basic unit of all societies.


Destructive instincts

Poised against the achievement of these impulses is the gigantic figure of the Queen of the Night, who represents the unsublimated instincts that would destroy community, setting man against woman and -- in the broadest sense -- man against man. She's a fascinating figure for all manner of reasons, not the least of which is the still current canard that Mozart and Schikaneder originally intended to make her a good figure and changed their minds before the end of the first act. But in a drama that is about how one learns to tell illusion from reality, it makes sense that those who learn the lesson should include the members of the audience. Mozart worked as closely with (and was as demanding of) his librettists as Verdi, Strauss or Puccini, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he created the Queen of the Night.

Her first appearance is as imposing as anything Mozart ever created. An orchestral introduction with insistent violin chords pounding in cross-rhythm over a thrashing bass creates expectations that are matched by the voice we hear: a dramatic soprano with an extended top, capable of making florid runs and dizzying coloratura ascents up to a high F. (It didn't hurt that in his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, Mozart had a soprano who could create such vocal pyrotechnics.)

That the Queen does all this tells us that she may not be quite what the naive Tamino thinks she is. For most opera composers, but for Mozart particularly, the stratospheric coloratura that only women can achieve usually suggests something that is especially and dangerously female -- the agitation that is called hysteria and that was medically associated until late in the last century with disturbances of the uterus. (The word hysteria derives from hystera, the Greek word for womb.)

The Queen of the Night has sisters in other Mozart operas -- in villainesses like Elettra in "Idomeneo" and Vitellia in "La Clemenza di Tito," whose unstable, murderous jealousy is expressed in exactly such dazzling vocal terms, and even "good" characters like Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" and Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte," whose instability and frailty are likewise suggested by such flights of agitated coloratura. A sure key to Mozart's intentions in "The Magic Flute" is the spoken dialogue -- often omitted in productions -- in which Tamino, after the Queen has departed, wonders momentarily if he has been deceived.

What is so terrible about the Queen's feelings -- particularly for a child of the Enlightenment such as Mozart -- is that they represent pure emotion and instinct, hostile to human ties made durable by reason. Of all the great Mozart operas, it's "The Magic Flute" that possesses the most ensembles -- ensembles that musically represent the ideals of mutuality in society.

Ideals of mutuality

Take the duet "Bei Maennern" ("the gentle love of man and woman") between Papageno and Pamina midway in the first act. This is one of the composer's greatest statements of his belief that mutual love is the highest good mankind can achieve. It's interesting that it comes from two characters who aren't sexually interested in each other, and in the ensemble -- with its alternating repetitions of the words "man and wife, wife and man, and man and wife" -- it becomes almost impossible to tell which character is singing which words. Nor does it matter -- that's exactly the point. And of all the characters in the "Flute," it's only the Queen who never participates in ensembles. Like a few other Mozartean characters, she's a symbol rather than a human being: a representation of instinctual needs and fears that negate the possibility of human communion.


That is exactly why her threats -- in her second act aria -- are so intimidating to Pamina. A great but lesser composer such as Rossini would have been satisfied with creating those astonishing repeated Fs and Gs. But Mozart makes them come with manic insistence on the words "be rejected for ever, abandoned for ever, destroyed for ever!" -- ending it all with a terrifying and sustained B-flat. The Queen represents something that is inside her daughter -- a sexually motivated rage that cannot care about other human beings.


Does this mean that Mozart and Schikaneder were sexist?

The composer and his librettist were indeed sexist, if one mistakenly applies late 20th century criteria to men of the late 18th century who probably believed the commonly accepted ideas of their time that "male" rationality and intellect were superior to "female" feeling and intuition -- just as the sun (the symbol of Sarastro's initially male-dominated brotherhood) was believed superior to the moon (the symbol of the Queen's matriarchy). And, surely, there's a certain amount of anti-feminist language floating around in the libretto.

But Mozart and Schikaneder clearly thought that turnabout was fair play. For the kind of unsublimated instincts that drive the Queen and her three ladies -- who libidinously fight among themselves in the opera's first scene for the right to be alone with the unconscious Tamino when he wakes -- are also to be observed in the Moor, Monostatos, whose sole aim in life is to rape Pamina. One can (and should) argue that the relationship of the Moor's appetites to the opera's other male characters exactly parallels that of the Queen and her ladies to Pamina.

Moreover, Schikaneder's anti-feminist sentiments -- if so indeed they are -- are often expressed in language so exaggerated that it's hard not to believe that he was parodying such beliefs. There's also the fact that Mozart's compassionate music creates more sympathy for Pamina's plight than for any other character and that she is, as well, the most admirable -- the most naturally honest and humane -- of the human beings in the opera. Furthermore, Mozart, in "The Magic Flute" more than in any of its predecessors, explicitly argues for an equality of the sexes.


In the drama's climax, it is Pamina, now as tried and tested by her sufferings as her prince has been by his, who leads him through the fire and the flood. It is she who explains to him the secret of the magic flute, how her late father made it and how its power can carry them past the fear of death. In this extraordinary scene, filled with some of Mozart's most sublime music, music itself is explicitly identified with the power of love to endure suffering and to fill the darkness of loneliness with light.

"The Magic Flute" is often referred to as Mozart's "Masonic opera" because he was a Freemason and Schikaneder was a former member, and because the opera is flooded with Masonic symbolism. Women were excluded from the Masonic lodges of the time -- an 18th century constitution excluded "slaves, women and immoral men," in that order. (Schikaneder had been expelled for the last of those reasons.) But the conflict between men and women that the Queen of the Night seeks to perpetuate is opposed by Sarastro's (and Mozart's) plan to resolve that duality by creating a "new pair" who will rejuvenate society and herald -- in opposition to some of the anti-feminist sentiments of his priests -- a truly enlightened age.


What: Peabody Opera Theatre's production of "The Magic Flute."

Where: Friedberg Concert Hall.

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.


Tickets: $16.

Call: (410) 659-8124.