Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Exalted Power of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City broadcasts a few of its performances each season to cinemas around the globe, for those of us interested in the annual productions of one of the largest and greatest houses in the world and for whom the local operatic slate is not nearly sufficient. Ster Kinekor screens these performances in South Africa (in its Cinema Nouveau theatres, in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town). The 2017-2018 season started off with a dramatically dark production of Norma, starring the Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as a truly great interpreter of the Gaulish priestess and a glowing Joyce DiDonato as her apprentice. The second production on offer is a revival of Julie Taymor’s perennially popular production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”). Mozart’s momentous opera soared for over two centuries before Taymor got her hands on it — and I daresay it’ll outlive her brilliant work — but it loses nothing to her outlandish and variegated designs and devices, and I most heartily advise every reader of this blog to go out and see one or more of the final screenings of this production (see the Ster Kinekor website for details).

Mozart’s music has had to weather more overblown yet rhapsodic rhetoric than any other composer’s in the modern era (and the classical and ancient times, for that matter), but it’s difficult to find anything like a hyperbole among its descriptors. Best known as a child prodigy (and now a virtual fertiliser for the ears and minds of today’s children, in the hope that his freakish abilities are infectious), Mozart’s technical mastery and fertile prolificity are incontrovertible, but they’re only the first part of the story of his genius. It’d be true to say of him, as a composer and teacher friend of mine has, that, in all 700 works, in the face of many self-imposed challenges, he never set a single note in the wrong place or at the wrong time; every moment is composed (you’ll forgive the cliché) as if by divine configuration. And that heavenly order is a true and personal aspect of his art: More than mere phenomena of sensation and spectacle, Mozart’s works constitute a noble and exalted philosophy sought sublimely through sound.

But, partly because of the times and partly, I surmise, because of his individual artistic temperament, Mozart’s music, its intimate euphony and its beatific elegance, is of an extremely abstract form; comprehensive and vast as his philosophy was, he could only show the explicit political dimensions of it through contact with the narrative drama of opera. As a result, Mozart’s operas are the most overtly political works in his oeuvre, but they’re also the most political operas in the repertory — and it’s no coincidence that those same operas are my absolute favourites, nor that the composers, like Wagner and Verdi, who most closely approach Mozart’s pre-eminence are recognised as political artists in their own ways. The politics of two of his most popular operas, Le nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) and Don Giovanni, are obvious and trenchant, and hardly irrelevant even today. (Even in its excised, censored form, it’s not surprising that the Emperor Joseph found the source material of Figaro troubling; the very romance at the centre of the plot is an outright challenge to archaic notions of aristocracy and social rank.) These works, both with libretti by the poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, are about what Mozart and his political allies found most heinous about the hierarchical order of European society: the ruling classes’ exactions of abuse and oppression through their oblivious privilege. Like many of the artists and thinkers of his time, Mozart believed that no person needed to be of a higher social, political, or economic rank to be a true noble, that those in privileged positions may have the lowest spiritual worth.

Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder pursued a higher politics in his final opera, Die Zauberflöte, one affirming beauty through truth, redemption and enlightenment through love and goodwill, and freedom through wisdom — available to every man who seeks them and who remains open to the higher spiritual values he’s required to uphold. Mozart was famously a member of the rationalist, humanist Illuminati at the height of the Age of Enlightenment, and his work openly supports the society’s belief in the goodness and strength of the people, and the right of all to freedom and self-determination; theirs was the age that gave rise to the French and American revolutions, and the world’s first republics. The plot of Die Zauberflöte follows a belief in power allied with wisdom, and that the rule of selfishness and evil is at best tenuous and unstable, and will surely fall. Mozart didn’t live long enough to hear of the brutal savagery of the Jacobins, the treacherous corruption of Napoleon, nor the cruel systems of oppression and enslavement in the American republic; the artistic crises of Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms, and others who followed, were as connected to the times as the political and moral ones.

In Die Zauberflöte, Mozart and Schikaneder also dramatise the power of the very art of musical creation, through the two enchanted instruments that feature in the plot: the magic flute itself and the crystal bells that are given to the prince Tamino and the birdcatcher Papageno as gifts for their protection. For Papageno, the gift and its music bring contagious joy which, though it doesn’t solve any of his own deeper and more abiding problems, can give solace as well as great delight. For Tamino, the music in its unrestrained emotionalism can enchant and captivate listeners; eventually, when tied to a devotion to his beloved, the princess Pamina, and his search for wisdom, Mozart and Schikaneder have his music bring enlightenment to those who seek it and commit themselves to its pursuit, as well as an existential defence and affirmation to those who, having dedicated themselves to music, require it.

Mozart’s use of Masonic musical motifs and ideas — in addition to Schikaneder’s use of them in the plot and text — is overt and well known. As the story moves from a chaotic disorder in the realm of the Queen of the Night, to religious superstition in fealty to her and her mission, to the rationalistic enlightenment of the priest Sarastro and his temple through Tamino’s trials and Papageno’s errors, Mozart’s music transitions from highly theatrical and virtuosic arias and ensembles (particularly for the Queen of the Night and her three attendants) to the simpler, smoother, cleaner lines sung by Sarastro (which not only signify but evoke his virtue, patience, and sincerity). Characters often break from their interactions within the story to proclaim the humanist aphorisms and ideals scattered through the libretto (“Love’s high purpose clearly proclaims: there is nothing nobler than man and wife”; “When virtue and justice strew with fame the path of the great, then Earth is a realm of Heaven and mortals are like the gods”), and Mozart inserts a three-note dotted figure throughout his score, beginning in the overture, which originates in Masonic ritual and signifies a knocking at the door. When Tamino is put through his rites, any Freemasons watching would recognise the parallels with their own secretive society and its rituals. The dramatic resolution arises from the restoration of a universal spiritual order and the attainment of enlightenment by Tamino and Pamina. Additional vibrant colours of comedy and dramatic delight are added with the worldly pursuits and romantic yearnings of Papageno. His Dionysian views and pleasures are an apt diversion from the central conflict between the Apollonian Sarastro and the chthonic forces of the Queen of the Night.

Julie Taymor’s visually arresting and magnificently weird production includes the traditional Masonic imagery (the pyramids, the temple to Isis and Osiris), as well as every other sort of tradition available to her. Anyone who has seen her stage production of The Lion King will recognise a delight in the widest array of puppets, masks, costumes, moving sets, and striking lighting, and be introduced to an overtly sexual interpretation of many of those costumes and the action that unfolds (an aspect of the circle of life that’s conspicuously absent in Disney’s production). The stage is ablaze with colour and invention that never competes with or undermines either the libretto or the music. The production was first staged in 2004 and has been revived many times since, and is now a holiday favourite in New York City, as a tourist attraction and a children’s entertainment. James Levine is conducting, as he has many times before (in all of the Met’s opera productions, Levine has conducted over 2,500 performances), and his inspired direction brings a marvellous, constant energy to the music. The cast is expertly selected and directed, and stars the young South African soprano Golda Schultz as Pamina, in a wondrously graceful and open performance for her Metropolitan Opera debut that brought a thunderous standing ovation in her curtain call.

To see this production would be an immense pleasure to opera devotees as well as novices. Mozart’s high art is blended with lower, broader entertainments; in fact, the work isn’t really an opera but of a genre known as singspiel, which is a kind of musical theatre that features some spoken parts as well as sung parts. Mozart extended his humanist ideals even to the production — music need not be of an ostensibly higher and more rarefied variety to be more noble or worthwhile; while Papageno’s motives and expressions may be nowhere near as finely nor virtuously expressed as Tamino’s, his emotions and desires are of no less value and his eventual union with Papagena is as important and of as high a purpose as that between Tamino and Pamina. In a more practical sense as well, the first production was democratised in that it was opened in a public opera house with cheap admission so that many more people would get a chance to see it. Even while the cultural élite recognised how extraordinarily fine a work it was, it was an immediate popular success as well, and, although there were no reviews of its first run, it drew enormous crowds and played hundreds of performances in the first few years after its premiere. Tickets for a screening at Ster Kinekor are R110, or even less if you have one of the right club cards, which is far less than you’d pay for a seat in any operatic performance in a theatre. Mozart’s work was meant to be enjoyed by as many people as it could reach, and you can fulfill that purpose this afternoon, at 14:30; next Tuesday, 28 November, at 18:00; and next Wednesday, 29 November, at 11:30.

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