Maestro Joseph Rescigno conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s masterpiece, The Magic Flute, for the first time in his distinguished career on April 17, 18 & 19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Rescigno has served as Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the company since 1981.
The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is among the last works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He conducted the premiere in September of 1791 and was dead a little more than two months later, a bit shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. It is a two-act singspiel, a work with music and dialog. The librettist was impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, with whom Mozart had worked often and who also sang in the premiere (the part of Papageno).
It is the tale of Prince Tamino who sets out to rescue a young lady named Pamina who has been promised to him. His aide-de-camp is Papageno, a bird catcher, who is out to win a lady promised to him, too; her name is Papagena. The opera is, then, the story of the meeting of the two men, their shared quest, and the trials they must endure to win these ladies. The work also reflects the Masonic rituals and Enlightenment political philosophy that Mozart and Schikaneder shared an interest in as Masonic lodge brothers. Since the two-act work can run almost three and a half hours, most North American companies do some cutting. When modifying the work, like others, we will first excise some racism and misogyny in Schikaneder’s libretto that have not aged nearly as well as have the timeless fable of love triumphant and the sublime music Mozart wrote. (We are using the well-respected translation by Andrew Porter.)
There are few if any other works that portray child-like wonder in quite the way that The Magic Flute does. In addition to many gorgeous ensembles and virtuoso showpieces, the score is a study in imaginative and evocative orchestration. Listen for the orchestral glockenspiel that portrays Papageno’s magic bells, bringing us into a world of fable and wonder. They hypnotize Monastatos’s henchmen in Act I and bring Papagena to him in Act II. The solo trombones play the solemn chords that are the motif of the priests of Isis and Osiris, both at the beginning of the overture and in the opening of Act II. The pan flute is Papageno’s way of luring birds in order to catch them. He calls for Tamino with it in Act I and for Papagena in Act II. Of course, Tamino’s magic flute figures prominently throughout the adventure. And the interplay between Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s pan flute is particularly eloquent. As in Mozart generally, the great Milwaukee Symphony is very much a featured artist as much as an indispensable support.
Child-like simplicity in the theater, however, is not child’s play; and the outward simplicity of The Magic Flute, the mood to be fostered and maintained, always rather intimidated me. The challenges in The Magic Flute, after you know you have a production and singers that will permit you to make stage magic, are questions of pacing. This involves analyzing how one section should flow into another to keep the momentum going. It is imperative that in such a long opera, with spoken dialog, each jewel-like musical number stop time but that the whole not be permitted to bog down.
Yet, Mozart lived before the invention of the metronome so, as with his other works, we have no precise knowledge of the tempo he took on opening night. We have only our own study, judgment, and informed taste to depend on in coming up with a game plan for presenting this masterpiece to our audiences.
I was fortunate enough to hear the great Karl Böhm conduct the piece and, when just starting out on my career, to assist conductor Laszlo Halasz, founder of the New York City Opera. Later in life, I was lucky enough to talk music with Erich Leinsdorf and, like most musicians, to learn from the scholarship of conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt. From watching Böhm and Halasz at work, I learned the delicate balance of tempos: When too fast, we can cheapen this elegant music but, when too slow, we can put the audience to sleep. I also heard them keep the pacing flexible. For example, in the long accompanied recitative between the speaker and Tamino, we want to allow for both Tamino’s youthful impetuosity and the speaker’s enlightened calm.
Both Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Erich Leinsdorf, conductors not normally paired in the minds of listeners, shed light on Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” for me. It is an andante written in the same meter as Susanna’s “Deh vieni non tardar” (Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro). Conventionally, though, Pamina’s music is taken more than twice as slowly as Susanna’s. Why? Maestro Leinsdorf posed this question to me in 1982 and, years later, I heard Maestro Harnoncourt take the aria much closer to the speed normally associated with Susanna’s aria. The scholarship that today informs so much performance of the music of Mozart and earlier composers seems to have passed Pamina by. There is no particular reason that Pamina’s music seems simply stuck in the “traditional” tempos that prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century.
The truth is that even with the oldest of works, taking a fresh look—shedding preconceptions and old habits—can be salutary for musicians and can only contribute to a better performance.