Great moments in opera: Die Zauberflöte

January 27, 2011

Happy birthday, Mozart!

Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is today his most popular stage piece, and one of the most popular “operas” in the repertoire.  The scare quotes are necessary because it is not really an opera in the proper sense, but a Singspiel, something like an eighteenth-century analogue of a stage musical today.  It is immensely popular because it is fun, lively, and full of beautiful, memorable music, including, in the Queen of the Night’s aria, one of the greatest show-stopping virtuoso vocal pieces known to man.

I am not going to try to summarize the plot, nor even to situate the highlight clips below, mostly because I am unable to state, even approximately, what happens.  The whole thing is one great dramatic mish-mash, with the exposed seams running every which way.  I’ve listened to it many times, and seen it staged once, and I don’t really know what it is about.  I am just happy that Papageno finds his Papagena in the end.

Speaking of which, here is a wonderful sequence: Papageno’s suicide cut short by the arrival of Papagena.  The “Pa- Pa- Pa- Pa-” section is what I always think of first when I think of Die Zauberflöte, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face.  This clip is taken from Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish-language film Trollflöjten, which I have seen, and which I greatly enjoyed (and which still did not help me to understand the story). Bergman is not usually noted for his comedic spirit, but this is pure delight.  I like how he takes her clothes off.

(A longer clip, including the hilarious suicide attempt that precedes the section shown above, can be seen here, although without subtitles.)

Die Zauberflöte is not all humour and light charm, although those are my favourite parts of it.  Mozart also introduced music of real dramatic weight, and a good example is “Pamina’s lament”, Ach ich fuhl’s. It is sung here by the great Lucia Popp.  (The aria begins at 0:50 in this clip.)

Since I alluded to the Queen of the Night’s aria already, I suppose that I should also include it here as a highlight.  It is so well known — in its standard version — that it hardly seems worthwhile.  But perhaps fewer have heard the highly non-standard version sung by the inimitable Florence Foster Jenkins, whose operatic career, like the proverbial meteor, was short but dazzling.  If you’re drinking something, set it down. Here we go. (Thanks to Sony’s lawyers, the video is un-embeddable.)


This occasional “Great moments in opera” series has now covered six of Mozart’s mature operas, and I do believe that that is enough for the present.  Next time I shall move on to another composer, though I know not whom.

4 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Die Zauberflöte

  1. KathyB Says:

    Your friend, the one who sings Les Mis with you, has an equally inimitable Queen of the Night in his repetoire. Give him a few drinks, and then ask to hear it.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Very interesting, and a little frightening! I did not know that. But I can well imagine.

  3. I had a bad experience with opera on video, in the form of a production of Wagner’s Ring, which almost made me swear off the whole experience and stick to audio, but Bergman’s Magic Flute made me keep the door at least slightly open.

    I first heard Florence Foster Jenkins on Peter Schickele’s great radio show, Schickele Mix. I think I still have a tape of tidbits from that show, which included this aria. My children loved it.

  4. cburrell Says:

    It is interesting to hear you say that about opera on DVD. It seems natural that opera ought to be better suited to visual media, yet many opera DVDs are really not very good, and don’t make a good case for the genre. I have seen a few that were good, but they were exceptions.

    One reason might be that video inadequately captures the full glory of staged opera. It is true that I find live opera far more engaging than opera on screen. Filmed stage plays are often boring too. On those rare occasions on which I have seen an opera ‘film’, not staged, but done according to the conventions of cinema, they were far more engaging.

    Another reason I think I often enjoy listening to, rather than viewing, opera, is that somehow I can hear the music better without the visuals.

    On the other hand, one reason that I have started this project to watch opera on DVD is because I want to learn the stories, which I have a hard time doing when just listening.


    I had been hoping that you would comment on this post, but mainly because I wondered whether you would correct my comment about Bergman not being very funny. I assume, then, that I am right?

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