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The Magic Abides

Pity the deprived soul whose spinal column cannot vibrate to the way Mozart uses clarinets and trombones in The Magic Flute. Shed a tear for the misguided misanthrope who fails to find the presence of God -- by whatever name -- in the music for Sarastro in that opera. Bemoan the unreconstructible rationalist who howls in horror as Schikaneder‘s plotline twists, this way now and that way then, as villains turn noble and heroines turn treacherous.

The current Los Angeles Opera production has made that last point, over which scholars have spilled ink by the tank load since the opera was new, particularly solemn and stirring. Tamino has come to Sarastro’s palace to rescue Pamina, who, he has been led to believe, has been kidnapped by Sarastro and held in durance vile. He is met at the entrance by one of Sarastro‘s priests, who queries him on his purpose and informs him that everything he has been led to believe is black is actually white, and that it will take some effort on his -- Tamino’s -- part to prove worthy of that knowledge. “When can I achieve this goal?” asks the impatient Tamino. The priest -- who is identified in the score as “Speaker” although he only sings -- answers, and on his sublime last line, a solemn cadence in the key of A minor, the entire plot pivots. “As soon as friendship‘s loving hand,” he sings, “leads you to our sacred band.” That line of music is repeated twice by an offstage chorus. Soft chords in the trombones enhance the solemnity. Within less than 90 seconds we have been confronted with a new plotline, and a new kind of music. It is a wrenching, extraordinary moment.

This revival of the company’s Flute -- first seen in 1993, again in 1998 -- is altogether successful; it runs through April 14. The Gerald Scarfe stage designs have lost none of their madcap luster. On the first night, Michael Schade -- who had only a few hours previously stepped into the Philharmonic‘s performance of Mahler’s Das klagende Lied and taken on the tenor‘s tonsil-twisting music in that weird escapade -- was the splendid Tamino. Rodney Gilfry’s Papageno has ripened into rich comic invention, Reinhard Hagen‘s Sarastro is worthy of his music, and the new Pamina, Andrea Rost, is a doll. Lawrence Foster’s conducting is, as is his norm, highly okay. The music that stayed with me the longest on opening night were those lines for the Speaker, eloquently sung by James Creswell, one of the company‘s resident artists and, obviously, a promising one.

That A-minor cadence demands your attention. Mozart had almost never composed in that key; never in the orchestral works or quartets, only once in an early piano sonata. Feverishly struggling in this last year of his life, he apparently reserved his foray into these dark and unfamiliar harmonic precincts for this simple yet intensely moving moment in his sublimely silly, wise comedy, with its still-argued-about mingling of the high-minded and the low-.

Every one of Mozart’s mature operas finds some new way to violate the practice of his time, whereby comedies should be funny and tragedies sad. The miraculous resolution at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, a sacred chorale in all but name, is the more astonishing for the comic hurly-burly just before; Fiordiligi‘s lovelorn confusion near the end of Cosi Fan Tutte, as she totters on the brink of infidelity, draws its tragic tone from the contrast with the ludicrous amorous entanglement that brings it on. But the circumstances of The Magic Flute -- as an entertainment at Emanuel Schikaneder’s house of folk comedy, as opposed to the grander operas unfurled before higher-paying audiences -- make its contrasts of tone even more jolting. A single night‘s entertainment that embraces Mr. and Mrs. Papageno feathering their nest, Sarastro’s invocation (fit for the mouth of God, wrote Bernard Shaw) and the heartbreak of Pamina‘s “Ach, ich fuhl’s” (Mozart‘s greatest aria, writes the scholarly Joseph Kerman) thus embraces a range of delectable jolts that no other single work, of Mozart’s time or of ours, can readily offer.

What, then, is The Magic Flute about? Part of its power lies in its multiplicity of answers. To Kerman, whose 1988 Opera as Drama remains obligatory reading, the change of direction “can be explained very simply and very happily on the assumption that Mozart himself insisted on it.” Whatever Mozart‘s original motivation in turning out a new titillation for his billiards buddy and fellow Freemason, something in his conscience pushed him to the realization that even Schikaneder’s crowd-pleasing plot deserved his best shot. That aforementioned small miracle, the A-minor cadence that diverts Tamino‘s path toward godly goals, launches the opera itself toward multitudinous kinds of greatness. “All the diversities,” writes Kerman, “of musical style, action, tone and mood are perfectly controlled to a single dramatic end.”

Every character is filled out with a full set of weaknesses as well as strengths. The saintly Sarastro maintains slaves and punishes their transgressions cruelly. Papageno, the sweet innocent, tells bare-faced lies, but still gets to share with Pamina a high-minded, philosophical duet on the meaning of love. For all his newly acquired bravery, Tamino must lean on Pamina for guidance through the trials of fire and water.

The Magic Flute fits the category of maiden-in-despair-heroically-rescued opera popular in its time both comically and seriously treated. Alongside this, we must also countenance the none-too-subtle allegory on the concerns and travails of the Freemason movement, which at the time was far more of a political force than it would later become. The psychoanalysts have had their day with the Flute as well: the interaction of Tamino and Pamina explainable in Jungian terms, the animus reaching out to the anima. Much can be made of the fact that Tamino’s at-first-sight passion for Pamina is motivated by a mere portrait -- which, furthermore, ends up in the possession of Papageno when the two seekers actually reach Sarastro‘s palace. Musical scholars have grappled for centuries with the paradox that Schikaneder’s cobbled-together, endearing mess of a plot follows upon the opera‘s impeccably tidy and beautifully organized overture -- which, in true Mozartian fashion, was composed only at the last minute, after the rest of the work was already on the performers’ music stands.

The abiding and most important genius of the work, however, is that none of this matters. As the beasts in the forest succumb to the enchantment of Tamino‘s magic flute, so do we all to Mozart’s. At the Music Center as well, Gerald Scarfe‘s nifty beasts are wonderfully in tune.