Arts & Events

Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE Sung in English at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 13, 2015 - 03:16:00 PM

Back in 1974, I wrote my very first opera review for the Berkeley Barb about the Merola Opera Program’s production that summer of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which was sung in English. In that production, director Richard Pearlman staged this opera as a mystical exploration of the psychedelic world of “non-ordinary reality.” Setting The Magic Flute in Mexico, Pearlman cast the earthy Papageno as a kinky-haired hippie traveler consorting with Aztec peasants and getting high on magic mushrooms and peyote, while seeking to turn on his straight friend Tamino. Sarastro was depicted as a benevolent advocate of The Teachings of Don Juan as told by Carlos Castaneda. In this production, the use of W.H. Auden’s English translation seemed utterly justified, if only for the reason that it dovetailed so perfectly with our generation’s quest for self-knowledge through exploration of altered states that might lead to higher spiritual consciousness.  

Sadly, I can’t make a similar argument for the English translation by San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley that is used in the company’s current production of Mozart’s German-language original Die Zauberflöte. Instead of the high-seriousness of Auden’s translation, albeit a high-seriousness achieved back in 1974 in Richard Pearlman’s ingenious staging by literally “getting high,” Gockley gives us nothing but low-brow fatuity. The sheer inanity of Gockley’s translation, which is guilty of striving to be all-too-current, is apparent very early on when Papageno first encounters Tamino and asks, “What’s your problem, boy toy?” Much later, Gockley’s awkward gaffes are compounded when he has the villain of the piece, Monostatos, utter the words, ”If I can’t have the daughter, I’ll go hit on the mother. She’s a very sexy lady!”  

There are other textual miscalculations in Gockley’s translation, but I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that in spite of Gockley’s superficial and regrettable exploitation of colloquial “now-ness,” this production of The Magic Flute succeeds surprisingly well thanks to fine singing among the principals and, above all, to Mozart’s immortal music. The composer’s extraordinary musical gifts are here fused with a sensitive, sympathetic understanding of the many ways of being human. Consequently, the way each figure in the opera is characterized by distinctive music sets each and every character in relation to everyone else, so that the drama unfolds, musically and symbolically, in a richly woven tapestry of multi-colored resonances on the theme of being human. 

As Tamino, the high-minded prince, tenor Paul Appleby sang with power and nobility. As his unlikely cohort, the earthy Papageno, baritone Efraín Solís was a stout vocal presence and a clear-cut everyman’s counterweight to the aristocratic Tamino. Soprano Nadine Sierra, coming off her sensational run in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor, was a sweet and wholesome Pamina. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova was an effective Queen of the Night, who handled Mozart’s most difficult fioratura passages – and their daunting high-Fs – with impressive ease. On the other hand, tenor Greg Fedderly’s arch-villain Monostatos was both overly antic and underwhelming vocally. Bass-baritone Alfred Reiter was perhaps slightly miscast to carry off successfully the lowest notes usually allocated to a bass, although, to his immense credit, Reiter almost managed to be utterly convincing in this very demanding role. The three ladies were admirably sung by soprano Jacqueline Piccolino, mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, and mezzo-soprano Zande Švėde. Maria Valdes was a suitably sexy, bumptious Papagena. The chorus under director Ian Robertson sang beautifully; and the conducting by Lawrence Foster, if a bit on the slow side, managed to hold things together musically.  

Mozart’s music, it almost goes without saying, is a wondrous creation – something which, as the great pianist Arthur Schnabel once remarked, is “too complex for beginners and too simple for the experts.” Of course, Schnabel was talking not just about Mozart’s operas but about all his music. In any case, Schnabel’s epigram has always seemed to me so perfectly apt, but perhaps especially in regard to the marvelous fairytale combination of comical common-places and spiritual seriousness that somehow becomes magically synthesized in Die Zauberflöte. Musically, The Magic Flute contains elements of singspiel, folksong, intermezzo, dance, oratorio, and religious liturgy, in addition, of course, to some of the familiar elements of opera. 

Incidentally, I noticed several cuts in this production’s performance of The Magic Flute. One of the most important lines in the spoken dialogue was cut. In Act II, just before Tamino and Papageno are about to undergo their initiation trials, a priest asks, somewhat doubtfully, if Tamino will muster the self-discipline to succeed in the trials. “He is,” says the priest, “a prince,” thereby intimating that Tamino might be too spoiled by privilege to endure the trials. “He is a man!” responds Sarastro. This interchange was entirely omitted. Perhaps more importantly, the thrice-repeated very solemn chords that first appear in the opera’s overture and re-appear at the onset of the trials by fire and water in Act II, were totally omitted in the Act II initiation scene of this production. 

Finally, a word must be said about this opera’s Masonic symbolism. Both Mozart and his librettist and co-collaborator Emmanuel Shikaneder were members of Vienna’s Masonic lodge; and they included in The Magic Flute many allusions to Masonic ideals, rites and symbolisms. After the death of Emperor Joseph II, who had been sympathetic to the Masons and had sought to lessen the influence of the Catholic Church and, particularly, of the Jesuits, Empress Maria Theresa reversed this policy and sought to interdict the Masonic lodges. At this moment of history, the Masonic movement was considered a manifestation of bourgeois humanism riding on the wake of the French Revolution. The Masonic emphasis on the equality of all mankind was considered dangerously anathema to Maria Theresa.  

Mozart and Shikaneder somewhat subversively sought to endow their Magic Flute with overtones that were unmistakably Masonic. They set the opera in Egypt, the mythical source where freemasonry was believed to have originated. They made Sarastro the sage devotee of Isis and Osiris and the Egyptian rites of immortality. The ordeals of Tamino and Pamina were modeled on the initiation rites of the Masons. When Die Zauberflöte was first performed in Vienna in 1791, many commentators identified Tamino with the recently deceased Emperor Joseph II; Pamina with the simple and forthright Austrian people; Sarastro with the scientist-astrologer Ignaz von Born, a Freemason; the vengeful Queen of the Night with the Empress Maria Theresa; and Monastatos with the clergy, especially the casuistic Jesuits. In this interpretation, the fact that Tamino gains acceptance to Sarastro’s brotherhood of wisdom by successfully meeting his trials, while the earthy Papageno ultimately wins acceptance by failing all his trials, simply but clearly illustrates the Masonic notion that each and every human being follows his or her own path to higher wisdom, One person, a high-minded aristocrat like Tamino, might attain this goal by self-discipline and abnegation, while another person, like Papageno, might attain the same goal by failing all the trials yet ultimately succeeding by resolutely refusing to be anything other than what he knows himself to be. Thus is Mozart’s profoundly universal celebration of everything that is human resoundingly made palpable in The Magic Flute, his immortal testament to what it means to be human.