Opera Explained: MOZART - The Magic Flute (Smillie) (David Timson) (Naxos: 8.558012)
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): TheMagic Flute
The word 'opera' isLatin and means 'the works'; it represents a synthesis of all the other arts:drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design. Consequently, itdelivers an emotional impact which none of the others can match. The only oneof the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was 'invented' in Italy in1597 as part of the Renaissance - the rebirth of interest in classical values.
As an art form it is truly international, crossing all linguistic and culturalbarriers, and it is probably the only one whose audience continues to expand,not in spite of, but because of developments in entertainment technology.
From its earlyorigins in Italy opera spread across Europe, establishing individual anddistinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early andlong-standing love affair with it - hence the term grand opera, referring to the massive five-act creationsthat graced the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. Germany had an excellentschool from as early as Mozart's time, and opera perhaps reached its highestachievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia, GreatBritain, and the Americas have also made their contributions.
But in the popularimagination opera remains an Italian concept - and no wonder. From its earliestyears Italians dominated the art: Cavalli and Monteverdi were among the firstto establish its forms; there was a golden age, called the bel canto, at the beginning of thenineteenth century when Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini ruled supreme; GiuseppeVerdi was probably the most revered artist in history; and, for many, Puccinirepresents in every sense the last word in this beloved genre.
Although thetwentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with opera composers, it canstill boast a few, including Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, and BenjaminBrit ten - and, maybe most significantly in the long run, those errantstep-children of opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.
The Magic Flute
Somebody once saidthat 'all art aspires to the condition of music', to which we might add, 'andall music aspires to the condition of Mozart'. The child-wonder, the'guttersnipe who was the voice of God', intrigued and enchanted scholars andlaymen years before Peter Schaffer's play Amadeusand its subsequent Oscar-winning screen version made Mozart an evenmore familiar icon.
He was the childprodigy, prodded, coaxed, and exploited by his father Leopold to demonstratehis abnormal talent throughout the courts of pre-?¡revolutionary Europe. Hecomposed forty-one symphonies, twenty-seven piano concertos, and a massive bodyof chamber music. He was perhaps the only figure in all the history of musicthat was equally at home in the concert hall, in the chamber-music salon, inthe sacred surroundings of the great cathedrals, and in the theatre.
Indeed you couldargue that one of the problems of opera is that with The Marriage of Figaro, Cost fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute it attained a peak - andnever got any better! Different, but no better.
The gruesome,chocolate-box image of little Mozart staring like a prepubescent Liberace fromhis harpsichord, though a mainstay of the Austrian tourist industry, has now beenexploded. We can now think of him as a sensual, intensely human figure, endowedwith an awesome mixture of carnal and cerebral qualities. And nowhere does thisintriguing combination find better expression than in his last undisputedmasterpiece The Magic Flute. <Thisis probably the most remarkable musical work ever written for the stage.
Its genesis lieswith a comedian/actor/manager called Schikaneder, who operated a low music hallin the suburbs of Vienna in the 1790s. He cobbled together, from a variety offables and fairy tales, this story of the young Prince Tamino and his pursuitof the pure Pamina. The quest, conducted against the background of a spiritualwar between the glittering Queen of the Night and the dull but noble Sarastro,is enlivened by a wonderful galaxy of characters: the very human bird-manPapageno, the wicked, lustful Monostatos, and assorted magic ladies and pipingboys.
What is sointriguing - and no doubt assures The MagicFlute's place as the National Opera of the German-Speaking Peoples-is that the work appeals at every intellectual level. For the child introducedto opera for the first time it is the greatest of all pantomimes. For thesensualist it contains music of ravishing beauty. For the moralist it confirmsa belief in the inevitable triumph of light over dark.
And for the trueopera lover it is maybe none, or maybe all, of these things. It is simply oneof the most sublime and life-enhancing works ever written, and the final andsupreme testament of the boy-wonder, the mature genius, the randy tyke, who,when he put pen to manuscript paper, poured out music of such spiritual depthand beauty that you can weep just to think of it. To know The Magic Flute is to learn that maybethere is something beyond this mortal coil.
Thomson Smilliebegan his career in the early days of Scottish Opera and has been artisticdirector of the Wexford International Festival, general manager of the OperaCompany of Boston, and general director of Kentucky Opera. He now makes acareer as a writer, speech-writer, and public speaker. He has a strong beliefthat people mature into a love of opera and travels the world encouraging alove of the art form. His other passions are travel, languages, andfriendships. He has written several other titles in the Naxos 'Opera Explained'series.
David Timsonstudied acting and singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He hasperformed in modern and classic plays through the UK and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. Among his many televisionappearances have been roles in Nelson 'sColumn and Swallows and Amazons. ForNaxos AudioBooks he has recorded, to date, three volumes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, anddirected Twelfth Night as well asplaying Feste. On Naxos, he takes the part of the Narrator in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.