Of the reception of the opera Mozart scholar Maynard Solomon writes:
The success of The Magic Flute lifted the spirits of its composer, who had fallen ill while in Prague a few weeks before. Solomon continues:
The opera celebrated its 100th performance in November 1792. Mozart did not have the pleasure of witnessing this milestone, having died of his illness on December 5, 1791.
Since its premiere, The Magic Flute has always been one of the most beloved works in the operatic repertoire, and is presently the tenth most frequently performed opera in North America.
The opera was the culmination of a period of increasing involvement by Mozart with Schikaneder's theatrical troupe, which since 1789 had been the resident company at the Theater auf der Wieden. Mozart was a close friend of one of the singer-composers of the troupe, tenor Benedikt Schack (the first Tamino), and had contributed to the compositions of the troupe, which were often collaboratively written. Mozart's participation increased with his contributions to the 1790 collaborative opera Der Stein der Weisen ("The Philosopher's Stone"), including the duet ("Nun liebes Weibchen," K. 625/592a) and perhaps other passages. Like The Magic Flute, Der Stein der Weisen was a fairy-tale opera and can be considered a kind of precursor; it employed much the same cast in similar roles.
The Magic Flute is noted for its prominent Masonic elements; both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons and lodge brothers. The opera is also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and can be regarded as an allegory advocating enlightened absolutism. The Queen of the Night represents a dangerous form of obscurantism, whereas her antagonist Sarastro symbolises the reasonable sovereign who rules with paternalistic wisdom and enlightened insight.
Mozart evidently wrote keeping in mind the skills of the singers intended for the premiere, which included both virtuosi and ordinary comic actors, asked to sing for the occasion. Thus, the vocal lines for Papageno and Monostatos are often stated first in the strings so the singer can find his pitch, and are frequently doubled by instruments. In contrast, Mozart's sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who premiered the role of the Queen of the Night, evidently needed little such help: this role is famous for its difficulty. In ensembles, Mozart skillfully combined voices of different ability levels.
A particularly demanding aria is the Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("The vengeance of hell boils in my heart"), which reaches a high F6 (see Scientific pitch notation), rare in opera. At the low end, the part of Sarastro includes a conspicuous F in a few locations.
While the female roles in the opera are assigned to different voice types, the playbill for the premiere performance referred to all of the female singers as "sopranos". The casting of the roles relies on the actual pitch range of the part.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, September 30, 1791|
(Conductor: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
|The Queen of the Night||soprano||Josepha Hofer|
|Sarastro||bass||Franz Xaver Gerl|
|Three ladies||2 sopranos, mezzo-soprano||Mme Elisab[e]th Schack]]|
|Monostatos||tenor||Johann Joseph Nouseul|
|The Three Boys (or genii)||treble, alto, mezzo-soprano||Anna Schikaneder; Anselm Handelgruber; Franz Anton Maurer|
|Speaker of the temple||bass||Herr Winter|
|Three priests||tenor, 2 basses||Johann Michael Kistler, Urban Schikaneder, Herr Moll|
|Two armored men||tenor, bass||Johann Michael Kistler, Herr Moll|
|Three slaves||2 tenors, bass||Herr Gieseke, Herr Frasel, Herr Starke|
|Priests, women, people, slaves, chorus|
These singers perform with an orchestra consisting of two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets (originally basset horns), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass), and strings. The work also requires a four-part chorus for several numbers (notably the finales of each act); and a glockenspiel to perform the music of Papageno's magic bells.
The opera is divided into either two or three acts:
|Acts||When divided into two acts||When divided into three acts|
|Act 1||Scenes 1–3||Scene 1|
|Act 2||Scenes 4–10||Scenes 2–7|
|Act 3||—||Scenes 8–10|
Tamino, a handsome prince who is lost in a distant land, is pursued by a serpent. He faints from fatigue and three ladies, attendants of the queen, in black robes, appear and kill the serpent. They all fall in love with the prince and each plans to be alone with him. After arguing, they decide that it is best that they all leave together.
Tamino recovers to see before him Papageno, arrayed entirely in the plumage of birds, who sings of his job as a birdcatcher and the fact that he is longing for a wife. (Aria: "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja") Papageno jokes with Tamino but says that he brings the birds that he catches to the Queen of the Night's servants, who give him food and drink in return. Papageno also claims that he has saved Tamino and strangled the serpent with his bare hands. At this moment, the three ladies appear and punish his lie by paying for his birds with a stone instead of food, water instead of wine and placing a padlock over his mouth. They tell Tamino that they were responsible for saving him. He deeply appreciates them and they show to the prince a miniature of a young maiden, Pamina, with whom he falls instantly in love. (Aria: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön)
The Queen of the Night now appears, demanding that Tamino free her daughter, the original of the picture, from the hands of Sarastro, promising that he can marry Pamina in return. (Recitative and aria: "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn"). The ladies give Tamino a magic flute that can change men's hearts, remove the padlock from Papageno and present him with a chime of bells to protect him. Papageno accompanies Tamino, and they set forth, guided by three boys. They escape all danger by the use of the magic instruments. (Quintet: Hm hm hm hm)
Scene 2: A room in Sarastro's palace
Pamina is dragged in by Sarastro's servant Monostatos, a Moor, who is persecuting her. (Trio: Du feines Täubchen, nun herein!) Papageno, sent ahead by Tamino to help find Pamina, arrives. Monostatos and Papageno are each terrified by the other's strange appearance and flee the stage. But Papageno soon returns and announces to Pamina that her mother has sent Tamino to her aid. Pamina rejoices to hear that Tamino is in love with her, and then offers sympathy and hope to Papageno, who longs for a Papagena to love. Together they sing an ode to love (Duet: "Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen"), then depart.
Scene 3: Grove and entrance to the temples
The three boys lead in the prince. As Tamino reaches the temple, he is denied entrance at the Gates of Nature and Reason, by invisible voices singing "Go back!". But when he tries the Gate of Wisdom, a priest appears and gradually convinces him of the noble character of Sarastro. After the priest leaves him, Tamino plays his magic flute in hopes of summoning Pamina and Papageno. The tones of his magical instrument summon first a group of magically tamed beasts, then the sound of Papageno's pipes. Ecstatic at the thought of meeting Pamina, Tamino hurries off.
Papageno appears with Pamina, following the distant sound of Tamino's flute. The two are suddenly apprehended by Monostatos and his slaves. Papageno then works an enchantment on them with his magic bells, and they dance, blissfully and involuntarily, off the stage.
Papageno now hears the approach of Sarastro and his large retinue. He is frightened and asks Pamina what they should say. She replies, "The truth! The truth! Even if it were a crime," and with her words a triumphal march begins (Chorus: "Es lebe Sarastro"); Sarastro and his followers enter.
Sarastro conducts an impromptu judicial proceeding. Pamina falls at his feet and confesses that she was trying to escape because Monostatos had demanded her love. Sarastro receives her kindly and tells her that he will not force her inclinations, but cannot give her freedom.
Monostatos then enters with Tamino captive. The two lovers see one another for the first time and instantly embrace. The chorus sings "What is the meaning of this?" and they are separated. Monostatos tries to point the finger of blame at Tamino. Sarastro, however, does not believe Monostatos' dastardly trick. He punishes Monostatos for his insolence and leads Tamino and Papageno into the temple of Ordeal.
Scene 4: A grove of palms
The council of priests, headed by Sarastro, enters to the sound of a solemn march. They determine that Tamino shall possess Pamina if he succeeds in passing through the ordeal, as they do not wish to return her to her mother, who has already infected the people with superstition. Sarastro, echoed by his fellow priests, then sings a prayer to the gods Isis and Osiris, asking them to protect Tamino and Pamina and to take them into their heavenly dwelling place should they meet death in the course of their trials. ("O Isis und Osiris")
Scene 5: The courtyard of the temple of Ordeal
Tamino and Papageno are led into the temple. Tamino is cautioned that this is his last chance to turn back, but he states that he will undergo every trial to win his Pamina. Papageno is asked if he will also concede to every trial, but he says that he doesn't really want wisdom or to struggle to get it. The priest tells Papageno that Sarastro may have a woman for him if he undergoes the trials, and that she is called Papagena. Papageno says that he wouldn't mind a look at her to be sure, but the priest says that he must keep silent. Papageno finally agrees.
The first test is that Tamino and Papageno shall remain silent under the temptation of women. (Duet, Speaker and Priest) The three ladies appear, and tempt them to speak. (Quintet, Papageno, Tamino, Three Ladies) Tamino and Papageno remain firm, though Tamino must constantly tell Papageno, "Still!"
Papageno confronts one of the priests and asks why he must undergo tests if Sarastro already has a woman that wants to be his wife. The priest says that it is the only way.
Scene 6: A garden, Pamina asleep
Monostatos approaches and gazes upon Pamina with rapture. (Aria: "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden") When the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro (Aria: "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"), Monostatos retires and listens. He tries to force Pamina's love by using the secret, but is prevented by Sarastro, who allays Pamina's alarm. (Aria: "In diesen heil'gen Hallen")
Scene 7: A hall in the temple of Ordeal
Tamino and Papageno must again suffer the test of silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm, even when Pamina speaks to him. Since Tamino refuses to answer, Pamina believes he loves her no longer. (Aria: "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden")
Scene 8: The pyramids
(When the opera is divided into three acts, this scene constitutes the beginning of Act 3)
(Chorus) Sarastro parts Pamina and Tamino. (Trio, Sarastro, Pamina, Tamino) Papageno also desires to have his little wife, and sings of this with his magic bells. (Aria, Papageno: "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen"). At the first ordeal, an old woman had appeared to him and declared herself his bride. She now again appears and changes herself into the young and pretty Papagena. However, the priests send her away with thunder and lightning. She vanishes, frightened, and Papageno is miserable.
Scene 9: An open country
The three boys see Pamina attempting to commit suicide because she believes Tamino to be faithless. They prevent her from doing so, and take her to see him.
Scene 10: Rocks with water and a cavern of fire.
Two men in armor lead in Tamino, and in the musical form of a Baroque chorale prelude give him advice, then reassurance that Pamina lives. Sarastro appears and sends Pamina in. Pamina arrives and is overcome with joy to find Tamino, who is now allowed to speak to her. Both pass unscathed through the final ordeal of fire and water with the help of the magic flute, which Pamina tells him was carved by her father from an ancient oak tree. They emerge from their trials to the sound of an offstage chorus singing "Triumph!".
Papageno wishes to take his own life because he can't stop thinking about Papagena, but at the last minute the Three Boys appear and remind him that he should use his magic bells. The bells when played indeed summon Papagena, and the happy couple is united, stuttering at first ("pa … pa … pa") in astonishment. (Duet: "Papageno! Papagena!)
The traitorous Monostatos appears with the Queen of the Night and her ladies to destroy the temple ("Nur stille, stille"), but they are magically cast out into eternal night.
The scene now changes to the entrance of the chief temple, where Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome and unites them. The final chorus sings the praises of Tamino and Pamina in enduring their trials and gives thanks to the gods.