January 27, 2017

Mozart's Fantasy

        Today is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday (1756-1791), in honor of which let’s have a look at his most famous fantasy opera, “Die Zauberflöte” or “The Magic Flute.”  In some ways it’s classic fairy tale: a prince is travelling to seek his fortune, he must rescue a princess, there’s a wicked mother/witch and a wise wizard, a monster serpent, love at first sight, magical gifts, transformations, trials to prove our heroes’ virtue, and happily ever after.  But there are also some wonderfully unusual twists on the fairy tale stereotypes.  We first meet our prince not slaying the monster serpent, but yelling (singing) “Help!” and fainting.  He has to be rescued by three women.  We first meet the wicked witch as a grieving mother begging the prince to rescue her kidnapped daughter.  Only later do we discover that the “kidnapper” is protecting the daughter from her own mother’s evil ways.  But though she may be a villain, the Queen of the Night has the
greatest, most spectacular arias and is arguably the star of the opera from a musical point of view.  One of the prince’s trials is a vow of silence, which is not an unusual motif in fairy tales but is certainly an interesting choice for an opera, and also musically interesting is the humming song when the comic sidekick has his mouth magically padlocked.  Altogether the opera is enormously fun: lots of fun and varied music, lots of humor, fun costumes and sets…  The prince and princess are really the least interesting characters compared with all the other supposedly secondary characters, and it’s clear that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder pulled out all the stops to make this an enjoyable spectacle.
         So today I’ve got for you a few images of The Magic Flute.  There are many cool paintings and sketches of costume and stage design for different productions, but in keeping with my blog theme, I’ve stuck with black and white.  I couldn’t find any relief block prints, so I’ve got engravings and a paper-cut.  That’s my favorite, with the Queen of the Night enthroned in the full moon among the stars.  This is when she still seems benevolent, with her three henchwomen to the left, and Prince Tamino and sidekick Papageno to the right.  Another
version of the Queen of the Night is featured in this image that may show the costuming for the very first production of the opera in 1791 (although their clothing styles look early nineteenth century to me).  She’s not nearly so strange and over-the-top here as in many modern productions.  You can also see her daughter Pamina, and Sarastro, although alas not large enough to see very well.
        Papageno the bird-catcher is shown here with his wonderful feathered outfit and a nice crest of feathers, and his magic bells.  The description of the image says the other person is Prince Tamino, although I had guessed it was one of the Queen of the Night’s henchladies-in-waiting - oops.  In any case, if that’s the giant serpent beside them, it sure doesn’t look very monstrous to me!
        Finally, a stage setting from 1865, emphasizing the Egyptian vibe.  I love how Princess Pamina’s costume is so thoroughly Victorian despite its Egyptian details.  I take the others to be Sarastro, the Queen of the Night, and on the far right Monostatos, the most unsympathetic villain of the piece.
        Many people interpret Die Zauberflöte to be an allegory of the triumph of reason over superstition and ignorance, and goodness knows we could use some of that triumph nowadays.  Nevertheless, I don’t think the story needs to “mean” anything: it’s just a silly magical story told with some of the most incredible music ever written.

[Pictures: Königin der Nacht, scissors-cut by Lotte Reiniger, 1935? (Image from Stadtmuseum Tübingen);
Costume designs from Die Zauberflöte, 1791? (Image from One Delightful Day);
Papageno and Tamino, engraving by C.C. Glaßbach, 1792? (Image from viaLibri);
Act 3, tableau 5, La Flute enchantée, engraving, 1865 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]


  1. very cool! thanks for sharing your love of engravings and stories!

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