Friday 24 November 2017

Classical: A magical farewell from Mozart in his final opera

Fairy story: Nathan Gunn in The Magic Flute from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Photo: Ken Howard
Fairy story: Nathan Gunn in The Magic Flute from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Photo: Ken Howard

George Hamilton

Just like this year, September 30 was a Friday in 1791. In Paris, there was upheaval. In the throes of the French Revolution, the National Constituent ­Assembly - set up during the early days of the uprising two years ­previously - was dissolved, to be replaced the ­following day by a new Legislative Assembly. Minds were on matters beyond music.

Further east, though, all seemed well with the world. Leopold II had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor not quite a year before.

In Prague, La Clemenza di Tito, a paean in praise of the monarchy in an age of revolution, was ending its run as part of the festivities around Leopold's coronation as King of Bohemia.

Back in Vienna, The Magic Flute was getting its first outing. It was unusual in many respects, not least because it was the result of a business deal, not the usual court commission.

Emanuel Schikaneder was a bit of a theatrical jack-of-all-trades. He came from Bavaria and started out as an actor in a travelling company who went down particularly well playing Hamlet.

He wrote plays, too, and developed an interest in music when the company put on its own operettas.

Long story short, he ended up in Vienna, where he was a member of the same masonic lodge as Mozart, whom he'd met some years before when they were both in Salzburg.

Schikaneder had branched out into promoting shows as well, and he'd been so successful, he was running his own theatre in a Viennese suburb.

But none too well, as it turned out. He was facing a financial crisis, and Mozart, with one eye on another decent pay day, agreed to help him out.

They'd work together on an opera - Schikaneder would look after the words, and Mozart would provide the music. They reckoned they'd be on to a winner.

Schikaneder took the comic role of the bird-catcher Papageno. The part of the ever-so-slightly bonkers Queen of the Night was written to showcase the striking coloratura of the soprano Josepha Hofer, who was a sister of Mozart's wife Constanze.

The greatness of The Magic Flute stems from the fact that it operates so well on several different levels. Superficially, it's a pantomime, a fairy story with an unlikely plot and twists and turns bordering on the absurd. Deeper within hides social commentary. It's the old good-against-evil story, personified in this case by reason overcoming irrationality.

There are parallels with freemasonry in the ritual tests the hero Tamino has to undergo en route to winning the hand of his love interest, Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. The magic flute is a gift to Tamino to help him in his quest.

Papageno, the bird-catcher, is Tamino's travelling companion. He's looking for love as well, pursuing a young lady called Papagena. Their his-and-hers duet provides one of the opera's most comic moments, where they sing "Pa-pa-pa-pa" at each other no less than 48 times.

The Queen of the Night's vengeful aria - Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen ('Hell's Vengeance is Brewing in my Heart') - is another musical highlight.

As in all good fairy tales, there's a happy ending. It was an instant success, running for almost 200 performances, and going on to become one of the most popular of all operas. Mozart and Schikaneder with their Magic Flute certainly hit the jackpot, although the première would be one of Mozart's last public performances before his death in December 1791.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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