The contrasts between "high" and "low" art, the sublime and the ridiculous, the earthy and the divine in Mozart's final opera The Magic Flute are all on display in the San Francisco Opera's current production. The Magic Flute can be considered a bipolar composition, beginning as a humorous and lively fairy tale and ending as a moral and spiritual lesson. This production, designed by Gerald Scarfe for the Los Angeles Opera in 1992 and fully refurbished for this run, conveys both aspects of the opera with moments of sublime transcendence and delightful comedy.
The opera moves rapidly through a variety of characters, scenes, and musical styles, sometimes seeming to contradict itself and leaving the audience unsure of its villains and heroes. In Act I, prince Tamino is convinced by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. By the end of Act I, Tamino has recognized Sarastro as a wise priest and leader of a spiritual community. Tamino renounces the Queen, and in Act II he and Pamina commit to Sarastro's trials to achieve enlightenment together. They are accompanied reluctantly by the simple birdcatcher Papageno. More interested in food and wine than in spiritual purity, Papageno fails Sarastro's tests but finds love with Papagena. Along the way there is enchantment, deception, love at first sight, attempted suicide, and giant snake attacks -- just another night at the opera!
The first act abounds with whimsical details that serve the plot and characters, such as the scene in which Tamino, trying out his magic flute for the first time, calls forth "animals" from the forest. But these are unlike animals ever seen before: a giraffstrich, combination giraffe and ostrich, who enters on stilts; a strangely beautiful pink striped tigicorn (tiger and unicorn); and a short, hilarious crocoguin (crocodile and penguin) no more than three feet tall, who nudges Tamino's flute, encouraging him to play more. The creatures give the scene a dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere that's perfectly suited to the music of Tamino's magic flute and The Magic Flute as a whole.
A highlight of the production is the second aria sung by Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night, which provides a needed spark during Act II. The coloratura (very high, rapid vocal passages) is electric and the scene is further animated by the believable interaction between the Queen and Pamina, who tries and fails to stand up to her mother. Anyone who watches this scene should be glad that their mother can't trill out high notes to win an argument!
The simplicity of the costumes and staging for the "heroic" characters of Tamino and Pamina creates an appropriate contrast with the colorful, manic theatrics of the comedic Papageno and the Three Ladies, aids to the Queen of the Night. While in some productions this contrast leaves the heroic roles seeming dull, they are saved here by the smooth, expressive singing of Piotr Beczala (Tamino) and Dina Kuznetsova (Pamina). As Sarastro, Georg Zeppenfeld combines a powerful, warm tone with a commanding and benevolent stage presence.
This production begins with great energy but slows down significantly during Act II. This may be partly due to the structure of the opera itself. Characters introduced in Act I, including the vibrant and entertaining Three Ladies, are nearly forgotten in Act II as the chorus takes on a more prominent, but also more static role. There are plot inconsistencies between the two acts as well, such why the Queen's gifts to Tamino (including the magic flute) continue to aid him even after he has turned against her.
Theories abound to explain these inconsistencies in plot and tone. Were Mozart and his librettist Emanual Schickaneder unable to reconcile their different artistic visions, with Schickaneder advocating for broader humor and Mozart focusing on the sublime spiritual elements? Did they make last-minute changes to differentiate the opera from a contemporary opera (called The Magic Zither) that dealt with similar themes? Were Mozart's dramatic instincts at odds with his attempts to express Enlightenment and Masonic ideals? Was there a rush to finish the work against a difficult deadline?
There may be no one explanation for the inconsistencies and seeming contradictions of this opera, and in fact these elements are part of what make the work so fascinating. The Magic Flute, undeniably one of Mozart's great masterpieces, is not easy to categorize or define. The opera encompasses many different aspects of human experience: bawdy jokes and ethereal visions, sensual enjoyment and the search for wisdom, sexual aggression and selfless love, revenge and empathy, hatred and forgiveness.
Each time you watch or listen to the opera, you may decide that the favor lies with a different side. Are you moved by Sarastro's calm mercy, or do you thrill to the seductive virtuosity of the Queen of the Night? Do you envy Papageno and Papagena's simple earthy love, or Tamino and Pamina's enlightened selflessness? Would you rather live in the unpredictable forest of Act I, or in the peaceful temple of Act II?
In this production, the energy and interest is more sustained in the fairy tale of Act I. But perhaps the real truth of The Magic Flute is that these tensions and contradictions are all aspects of the same experience. Maybe the fun is in not having to choose.
The Magic Flute is at the San Francisco Opera through November 3, 2007. For tickets and information visit sfopera.com.