Countless dozens of Ph.D theses must be written about Mozart's The Magic Flute and yet it is so lively with elements of fantasy and free-flying imagination that it is often the first opera to which children are taken. It has a plot of such complexity that it takes several viewings for all but the most studious opera buffs to sort out the characters and follow the ins and outs of the multilevel story. At the same time it has so much easily accessible charm and so many glorious Mozart tunes that even the novice will be captivated.
There is a large cast of characters including the priest Sarastro (a very serious, proselytizing basso), the Queen of the Night (a mean, angry, scheming coloratura), and her daughter, the beautiful and courageous Pamina. There is the handsome hero, Tamino, on the quintessential road trip, and his cohort in misadventure, the bird seller, Papageno. Papageno ultimately finds his Papagena (who starts out disguised as a crone), Tamino ultimately wins Pamina, Sarastro presumably wins a passle of converts, and everyone goes home humming the catchy Mozart melodies. It is all presented in a plot complicated by a dragon, a threesome of warbling ladies in service to the Queen of the Night, another threesome of boy-angels, even a bully - Monostatos, guard for the Queen. It is lightened by such elements as locked lips, charmed animals, and, of course, a magic flute.
Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791, just after the French Revolution and just before he died. Haydn had introduced Mozart to Freemasonry, and the opera is full of the ideas (the autonomy of the individual, self-determination, appalling sexism), the ideals (power, wisdom, beauty), and the symbols (aprons, hammers, compasses, a pyramid with an all-seeing eye) of the Masons. Rituals, tests, initiations come into play. It is no wonder the scholars have found Flute to be a rich vein of ore for analysis and refinement.
But Mozart was working with co-librettist and theater director Emanuel Schikaneder, who was partial to the use of then state-of-the-art special effects on the stage. If the heavy Masonic ideas might get in the way of good theater, Schikaneder saw to it that the fantasy and stage magic kept his audience enthralled. At Berlin's Komische Oper this season, Schikaneder has found his soul-mate in Harry Kupfer, artistic director of the company and director of the new production of Flute. Kupfer, who has a reputation for imagination, if not for restraint, pulls out all the stops for this production (designed by Valeri Lewental). It looks as if they rummaged through the warehouse and threw onto the stage costumes and props from anything and everything played by Komische Oper for the last ten years.
Kupfer makes a big opening mistake in bringing out Tamino...