Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Plenty to laugh about, but a bit to regret, in fine entertainment by a tragic genius

There’s some satisfaction in a talented individual receiving some recognition in his lifetime, rather than none at all. Particularly if the talent in question is more like genius. But it has to be sad if that lifetime was short, and mostly consumed generating works that should have won acknowledgement but didn’t, with triumph coming only in its last few weeks.

This is the sad background of The Magic Flute, the first piece that gave Mozart really widespread popular acclaim. Its premiere was on 30 September 1791, and such was its success that it reached 100 performances just over thirteen months later. But Mozart had died nearly a year before, on 5 December 1791, without reaching his 36th birthday, just over two months after the opera opened.

That, however, is the saddest thing about it. Otherwise the opera is an extraordinary piece of almost Monty Pythonesque fun and silliness. We have a fairy tale, complete with beautiful princess who falls in love at first sight (of course) with the dashing prince who sets out to rescue her. As for him, he doesn’t even wait till first sight to fall for her, instead being captured by just looking at her picture.

In parallel, we have a clown in the form of a bird catcher, a loveable rogue and fool, always getting into trouble, whose only aim is to find a woman who can be his mate. Does he find one? Is he going to have to marry the old lady he meets? Or will she turn out to be the gorgeous young woman of his dreams? You’ll not get a spoiler from me, though I will reveal that his name is Papageno and there’s a female character called Papagena.

No spoiler! But this is Papageno and Papagena
from the Welsh National Opera production

They have some pretty good songs, too.

And just who’s the adversary the dashing prince must take on to rescue the princess? Could it be the wicked sorcerer who has abducted her, or is he really the good and generous leader of an order devoted to the pursuit of nature, reason and wisdom? Is her mother really the wretched parent deprived of her child, or is she the wicked Queen of the Night? Is the opera about a rescue from the clutches of a kidnapper, or is it about the triumph of reason over the forces of darkness? Or the conflict of freemasonry (good, for Mozart) against the Catholic Church (not so good)? 

Who knows. It could be any of those things or none of them.

That’s how tense it gets. Imagine. We were on the edges of our seats.

One of the things I particularly like about this opera is that Mozart wrote for actual, real people. Individuals. His friend whose company would put it on in his own theatre, who wrote the libretto and was the first Papageno. The rest of the cast, made up in part of actors who could sing a bit, for whom Mozart had the orchestra playing the tune so they could sing along to it; singers for whom he had the orchestra playing a true accompaniment while they found the tune themselves; and some outstanding singers for whom Mozart wrote devilishly difficult bits, including what’s generally thought of as the hardest aria for any soprano (written for his sister-in-law).

Queen of the Night, in the Welsh National Opera production
And, boy, is that aria by the Queen of the Night extraordinary to hear.

So we had a great evening when we went to see the Welsh National Opera perform The Magic Flute at Milton Keynes theatre. Even the set was good, all pale blue sky with fluffy white clouds, which reminded us of a Magritte painting – an impression made all the stronger when we saw the male singers in bowlers.

Magritte Bowler-clad men and fluffy skies
Male singers in the Welsh National Opera production of
The Magic Flute
The voices were excellent, the whole performance well-paced and wittily staged. A great way to spend a few hours.

I only wish Mozart could have seen a little more of his great success.

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