Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: The Magic Flute

Setting: A sort of mythological, magic-dominated Egypt

Plot in three sentences: Tamino is hired by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter from the evil Sarastro. But Sarastro turns out to be a goodie and inspires Tamino to go through lots of Masonic rituals. Tamino gets the girl, evil is confounded, and comic bird-catcher Papageno gets a suitable partner into the bargain.

Reputation: While clearly vaudeville in origin, The Magic Flute raised German opera to new heights. Its blending of Masonic imagery with more pantomime stuff was something of a risk on Mozart’s part, but it shows how he – and probably his librettist Schikaneder – had a serious purpose behind the farce. For some, it’s the ultimate Enlightenment opera.

What was the difference between German and Italian opera? German opera wasn’t sung all the way through: there are great tracts of spoken dialogue, which didn’t occur in Italian. This continued well into the next century.

Critical reaction: A huge success, set to be the biggest operatic money-spinner of Mozart’s life. Salieri liked it! Count Carl von Zinzendorf: ‘The music and the decorations are pretty, the rest an unbelievable farce.’

Highlights: 1. Overture (all Mozart opera overtures are famous); 2. ‘Der Holle Rache’ (Act 2, incredible vocal pyrotechnics); 3. Papageno’s humming song (Act 1); 4. Papageno’s first arias (Act 1).

Death toll: None as such, but the baddies’ evil power is destroyed.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘I don’t care if people do think it’s the supreme Mozart opera. I think the vocal gymnastics are tedious and much of the rest is half-baked.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘Great special effects.’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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