Simon Rattle conducts Mozart’s “Magic Flute”

07 Apr 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Dimitry Ivashchenko, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, Pavol Breslik

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    The Magic Flute, K. 620: Act 1 (concert performance) (70 min.)

    Dimitry Ivashchenko Bass Baritone (Sarastro), José van Dam, Andreas Schager Tenor (1st Priest), Jonathan Lemalu Bass Baritone (2nd Priest), Ana Durlovski Soprano (The Queen of the Night), Kate Royal Sopran (Pamina), Annick Massis Sopran (1st Lady), Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (2nd Lady), Nathalie Stutzmann Contralto (3rd Lady), Regula Mühlemann Soprano (Papagena), Michael Nagy Baritone (Papageno), Pavol Breslik Tenor (Tamino), James Elliott Tenor (Monostatos), Benjamin Hulett Tenor (1st Armoured Man), David Jerusalem Bass Baritone (2nd Armoured Man), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    The Magic Flute, K 620: Act 2 (concert performance) (95 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (20 min.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was the highlight of the first Easter Festival in Baden-Baden in April 2013. Following the festival, the musicians also gave a concert performance of the production in which the singers enchanted the audience with both their vocal and dramatic skills. Simon Rattle also revealed himself to be an excellent interpreter of Mozart, bringing out the whole transparency, tonal beauty and drama of the score.

Singspiel, magical extravaganza, popular theatre, mystery play, didactic theatre, parable – Mozart’s final stage work has been assigned to the widest range of theatrical forms. No surprise, given that the libretto from the hand of the composer’s actor friend and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder is a conglomeration of various sources: The tale Lulu oder die Zauberflöte from a collection of fairytale by Christian Martin Wieland, Paul Wranitzsky’s opera Oberon, the Egyptian novel Séthos by the French Abbé Jean Terrasson and many other works, they could all be seen as inspiration for Schikaneder’s libretto.

An opera entitled Kaspar der Fagottist oder: Die Zauberzither, premiered three months before the Magic Flute in Vienna, even caused Schikaneder to make significant changes to the piece while he was writing it, as the similarities were too great. Mozart’s music has also long been subsumed among the numerous inconsistencies of the libretto – unjustly, as no other than Richard Wagner recognised: for what “did Mozart built on this strange adventurous basis! What divine magic wafts through this work, from the most popular songs to the most sublime of hymns! What versatility, what diversity! What simple yet elegant popularity in every melody, from the simplest to the most powerful!”

“We’re disappointed too, struck with dismay / All questions open though we’ve closed our play.”

Observations on Mozart’s Zauberflöte


Is the Magic Flute a Sorry Concoction? This question was posed in 1978 by the third issue of the series Musik-Konzepte, in which the editor Rainer Riehn described Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a “dialectical composer” and concluded that “the contradictions between extraordinary musical material and a failed society” cannot “be compelled to fit together seamlessly and without force”. Naturally he was also referring to Freemasonry, but not nearly as explicitly as in Helmut Perl’s book Der Fall “Zauberflöte” – Mozarts Oper im Brennpunkt der Geschichte The Case of the Magic Flute – Mozart’s Opera in the Focus of History, published in 2000, which depicted the composer and his librettist “as committed advocates of a radical late Enlightenment movement, the ideology of the Illuminati”, so that “in a new perspective, this opera proved to be a unique reflection of the political events in Josephinian Austria”. Or the 2005 study by Egyptologist Jan Assmann, Die Zauberflöte: Oper und Mysterium The Magic Flute: Opera and Mystery – followed in 2012 by Ein literarischer Opernbegleiter A Literary Opera Companion – which traced the work beyond the Freemasons and Illuminati back to the Egyptian mystery culture.

These are only three examples from who knows how many. There is probably no other work in the history of opera that has been interpreted as often, as differently, as speculatively or as elaborately as Mozart’s Magic Flute. No other work about which opinions are as divided – even among “Mozartians”. But there is also no other work that appears to withstand written and staged interpretations as tenaciously or unperturbedly. According to the statistics of the online portal “Operabase”, during the past five seasons the Magic Flute, with 571 performances, ranks fourth among the most-performed operas, after Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and Georges Bizet’s Carmen. “Credo quia absurdum” – I believe because it is impossible. The Magic Flute is often a listener’s first encounter with the magical world of opera, and anyone who hears or sees it can easily avoid the discourse on interpretations. The piece “works” equally well as a one-dimensional fairy-tale play suitable for children or a highly contrived ritual of initiation into some esoteric doctrine or other – and that is the real mystery of the Magic Flute.

A “German opera”

The earliest concrete references to the Magic Flute are found in Mozart’s letters to his wife, Constanze, in June and July of 1791. On 7 June he reported that “today I am lunching with Schikaneder”; four days later he wrote, “From sheer boredom I composed today an aria for my opera. I got up as early as half past four.” On 2 July he urged his friend and student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had accompanied Constanze to the spa at Baden, to “send me my score of the first act, from the introduction to the finale, so that I may orchestrate it”. The composition must have been finished by the middle or end of July at the latest; in his handwritten catalogue of his works Mozart entered it as “a German opera in 2 acts”, adding “a march of priests and the overture” on 28 September.

The premiere took place at 7:00 in the evening on Friday, 30 September 1791, at the Theater auf der Wieden. Schikaneder sang and played Papageno and, according to the playbill, “Herr Mozart, out of respect for a gracious and venerable public, and from friendship for the author of the piece, will today direct the orchestra himself”. On 7 October Mozart described another performance to his wife, who was again in Baden for a cure. “I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever. As usual the duet ‘Mann und Weib’ and Papageno’s glockenspiel in Act I had to be repeated and also the trio of the boys in Act II. But what always gives me most pleasure is the silent approval. You can see how this opera is becoming more and more popular.” The work was not a success to begin with, however, as the Berlin Musikalische Wochenblatt reported from Vienna on 9 October: “The new comedy with machines, the Magic Flute, with music by our Kapellmeister Mozart, which is given at great cost and with much magnificence in the scenery, fails to have the hoped-for success, because the contents and the language of the piece are much too poor.” If this account was correct, these reservations were in any case quickly dispelled – the Magic Flute was performed 20 times in October alone, and by 6 May 1801 the work had been presented 223 times at Schikaneder’s theatre.

“A happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult”

It is extremely difficult, probably impossible, to consider the Magic Flute independently of its interpretations. Perhaps a diary entry by Count Karl von Zinzendorf from 6 November 1791 most aptly describes the work, because it is so matter-of-fact: “La musique et les décorations sont jolies, le reste une farçe incroyable.” Was that what the cultivated public experienced – pretty music and scenery, and the rest an incredible farce? And if so, what did the common folk see and hear? They were the actual target audience of the suburban theatre, as is reflected in the low admission prices: 17 kreuzer in the stalls, 7 kreuzer in the gallery, while a small box for four people cost 2 gulden 30 kreuzer. Or was it important for Mozart – as in the case of his first piano concertos for Vienna – to compose music that was “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult”, as he wrote his father on 28 December 1782? Should the music of the Magic Flute, like that of the concertos nine years earlier, be “very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why”? It would have been the same approach that Schikaneder adopted in his theatrical work, as Julius Friedrich Knüppeln observed in 1793 in his Vertrauten Briefen zur Charakteristik von Wien Intimate Letters on the Character of Vienna: “His comic productions meet with great approval from both aristocratic and ordinary members of the audience” because he uses “the fondness of a sensual people for the miraculous and supernatural to his advantage”.

One contradiction appears alongside the other – the trivial “tinkling” of Papageno’s glockenspiel for the “less learned” next to the elaborate chorale counterpoint of the two armoured men for “connoisseurs alone”. Sometimes both are even found together, such as the “extraordinary severity of the architecture”, which Stefan Kunze heard in the seemingly “light” overture. Apart from a spoken dialogue scene, there are only a few dozen bars between the highest note in the Queen of the Night’s “vengeance” aria (No. 14) – the F above high C – and the lowest note – an F-sharp below the bass staff – in Sarastro’s “hall” aria (No. 15). Queen and priest, woman and man, body and soul, high and low, night and day, fire and water, hate and love, revenge and forgiveness, death and life, evil and good, untamed nature and solidly built temple – the Magic Flute presents a Manichaean worldview, no matter which theatrical, philosophical, Illuminist or Masonic principles it draws on. Perhaps one can and should not try to explain or reconcile this heterogeneous coexistence “since the music does not seem to notice the inconsistency at all. It acknowledges Sarastro’s world in Act II as ‘positively’ as it supports the Queen’s moral position of hostility towards Sarastro in Act I” (Attila Csampai).

But what on earth was the “silent approval” that gave Mozart the “most pleasure”?! One of so many unanswered questions that leave us, like Bertolt Brecht, “disappointed” and “dismayed” when the curtain has fallen. After 222 years, we are no closer to resolving the mystery of the Magic Flute.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Quotes from Mozart’s letters translated by Emily Anderson, from The Letters of Mozart and His Family, London, Macmillan, 1938.

Pavol Breslik studied initially at the University for Performing Arts in his hometown of Bratislava. In 2002 he won the Antonín Dvořák International Singing Competition in the Czech Republic and subsequently continued his studies at the CNIPAL opera studio in Marseille. He also attended masterclasses with Yvonne Minton, Mady Mesplé, Mirella Freni and William Matteuzzi. From 2003 to 2006, Pavol Breslik was a member of the ensemble at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin where he sang roles in works by Mozart, Donizetti, Mussorgsky and Janáček, and where he continues to make guest appearances. Now as a freelancer, he can be heard in many of the world’s leading opera houses (Brussels, Paris, London, Munich, New York) not only in his many Mozart roles, but also in operas by Beethoven, Donizetti, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. He also appears at the Festivals in Glyndebourne, Vienna, Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence. As a concert soloist with major European symphony orchestras and specialist ensembles (for example le Concert d’Astrée) , the tenor has worked under the direction of conductors such as Sir Colin Davis, Emmanuelle Haïm, Kurt Masur and Riccardo Muti performing a broad repertoire of works ranging from Handel to Matthus. Pavol Breslik made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in late March 2011 as Narraboth in in a concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle at the Philharmonie in Berlin, and again shortly afterwards in a staged production as part of the Salzburg Easter Festival.

Ana Durlovski was born in Štip (Macedonia) and studied at the UKIM Faculty of Music from 1997 to 2001. Her first stage experience was gained at the Macedonian National Opera where she made her debut as Lucia di Lammermoor at the age of 21. This was followed by appearances in opera houses in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Albania. In 2006, the soprano made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute), a role she has also sung at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and at Deutsche Oper in Berlin. From 2006 to 2011, Ana Durlovski was an ensemble member at the Staatstheater Mainz, where she sang roles such as Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier), Musetta (La Bohème) and Manon (Manon). Since 2011, the singer has been a member of the ensemble of Staatsoper Stuttgart, where her roles have included Morgana (Alcina), Folie (Platée), Sister Constance (Dialogues des carmélites) and the title role of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Moreover, Ana Durlovski appears regularly in concerts and recitals, including contemporary music which she sings as a member of the ensemble “Alea”. The artist has been awarded numerous prizes. She received the Croatian Cultural Award “Mariana Radovan” for her portrayal of the Queen of the Night at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb in 2006. The singer made her first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden just a few days ago, also in the role of Queen of the Night.

Benjamin Hulett was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford, and received his operatic training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. As a member of the ensemble of the Hamburg State Opera from the 2005/2006 to 2008/2009 seasons, he sang roles such as Oronte in Handel’s Alcina, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, Jaquino in Fidelio and the novice in Billy Budd. He subsequently returned as a guest artist in Hamburg as Tamino and Narraboth (Salome). The tenor has appeared as Oronte (Alcina) at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, made his role debut as Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with Opera North and created the role of Leszczuk in the premiere of John Kalitzke’s opera Die Besessenen at the Theater an der Wien. In 2010 Benjamin Hulett made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in Nicholas Lehnhoff’s new production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra as the young servant, a year later he performed at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in the opera Salome (Second Jew), also in a Lehnhoff production. In concerts, he has performed at the BBC proms under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Roger Norrington; he sang Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri at the Edinburgh Festival and was a soloist in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. In Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Benjamin Hulett was heard in Johann Adolf Hasse’s intermezzo Piramo et Tisbe and in Thomas Adès’ opera The Tempest. This will be his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Dimitry Ivashchenko received his vocal training at the Glinka Conservatory in Novosibirsk and at the University of Music in Karlsruhe. From 2000 to 2004, he was an ensemble member of the Stadttheater Augsburg. Guest engagements have taken him to, among others, the Deutsche Oper and the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Opéra national de Paris, to Vienna, Glasgow and Toulouse, as well as the festivals in Salzburg and Baden-Baden. His repertoire includes roles such as Gremin (Eugene Onegin), Gurnemanz (Parsifal), Mephistopheles (Gounod’s Faust), Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte), Pogner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Vodnik (Rusalka), Sparafucile (Rigoletto) and the title role in Boris Godunov. In addition to his opera engagements, the Russian bass is also active as a concert singer. He has performed Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust at La Scala in Milan, and at the Musikverein in Vienna, he sang in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass as a guest of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Boulez. At the start of this season, Dimitry Ivashchenko participated in performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 in Lausanne and Geneva with Marek Janowski conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This will be Dimitry Ivashchenko’s first appearance in a Berliner Philharmoniker concert.

Michael Nagy was born in 1976 and received his first musical training with the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben. He studied singing and conducting in Stuttgart, Mannheim and Saarbrücken where Rudolf Piernay and Irwin Gage were among his teachers. Master classes with Charles Spencer, Rudolf Piernay and Cornelius Reid completed his training. In 2004, Michael Nagy won the International Art Song Competition Stuttgart. After two seasons as a member of the ensemble at the Komische Oper in Berlin, he joined Oper Frankfurt where from 2006 to 2011, in addition to the lyric Mozart roles, the baritone made many role debuts, including Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Valentin (Faust), Jeletzki (Pique Dame), Marcello (La Bohème), Albert (Werther) and Frank (Die tote Stadt). Michael Nagy continues to maintain his connection with the Frankfurt opera house: In 2012 he returned there for productions of Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot and Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Guest engagements have also taken the singer to the opera house in Oslo, Deutsche Oper Berlin and to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In summer 2011, he made his debut at the 100th Bayreuth Festival as Wolfram in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. As a concert singer, Michael Nagy has a broad repertoire which includes Baroque music and with which he has appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. In this field, he has close artistic ties to Helmuth Rilling and Philippe Herreweghe. This will be his first appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Kate Royal was born in London and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the National Opera Studio. She won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2004 and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist Award in 2007. She has performed on opera stages in London, Glyndebourne, Madrid, Paris, Aix-en-Provence and New York, singing works by Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Bizet, Britten and Adès. Kate Royal has appeared as a concert soloist at the BBC Proms, the Baden-Baden and Edinburgh Festivals and with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, amongst others. She has collaborated with such conductors as Emmanuelle Haïm, Sir Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel and has appeared in recitals throughout Europe and North America. Kate Royal made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-December 2007, singing Handel’s Messiah under the baton of William Christie. She appeared with the orchestra most recently in April 2012, in performances of Luciano Berio’s O King and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Magic Flute

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Magdalena Kožená appears by kind permission of Deutsche Grammophon.

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