Magic, monsters and music in Mozart’s world
For all its appeal to opera audiences of today, The Magic Flute was written for people who crowded into a Viennese suburban theatre back in 1791. Sitting in the stalls may have been a more unpleasantly fragrant exercise 220 years ago, but in most other respects the impact of Mozart and Schikaneder’s masterwork suggests that the first audiences were just like you, me and whichever of the little ones you might have wisely brought along to this performance. Back then, it would appear that kids were intrigued by big snakes that eat people, magic, trials of fire, inexplicably potent weapons, rescuing the pretty girl in the picture, and the plain juxtaposition of good and evil. Today, we can pitch Flute to the children as ‘Harry Potter meets Star Wars’.
As a consequence, we now acclaim Mozart for his continuing appeal to contemporary taste. This surely gives him too much credit. How was he, a jobbing composer writing for next week’s show, to know that people don’t change, even as the centuries go by? The Magic Flute’s great achievement is not to have launched into a vanguard that would take us ages to comprehend, but to have positioned itself as part of the vernacular furniture from day one. It is in that rare echelon of great operas that ‘belong’ to us immediately, even if at the first sitting – and this might be yours – one chooses not to drill down through the many layers and codes that make up its fabric.
Masonic references? Sure; numeric symbolism is just the beginning. The story is bursting with trinities: Ladies, spears, Spirits, Priests, temples, virtues, trials – and they are just onstage. In the pit, the orchestra’s three majestic wind chords announce the beginning of the Overture in a key that is written on the page with three flats. More fanciful is the suggestion that the work’s 21 numbered sections, plus the Overture, correspond to the 22 Major Arcana of the medieval tarot card deck representing the major physical and spiritual forces in life; or the more recent casting of characters such as Sarastro and the Queen of the Night as Jungian archetypes engaged in confrontations between animus and anima.
Throw in political allegory (or worse still, propaganda, a popular interpretation of the work during the 1790s), Enlightenment ‘how to’ manual, and the list of interpretations goes on. None of these analyses would have meant a great deal to the crowds in the Theater auf der Wieden who filled the stalls night after night, causing Flute to rack up an impressive 100 performances by November 1792. Mozart didn’t live long enough to profit from such impressive box-office numbers, but he was around for several weeks after its première to savour the work’s initial success; the encoring of certain numbers, and for him the thrilling Zen-like sound of what he called “silent applause”.
The title says it all: the work’s ‘magic’ is musical, the spell cast by Mozart’s capacity to take characters whose actions and behaviours are rarely subject to the prevarications of the real world and render them as realistically frail and human. When the opera cuts to the chase quite literally at the beginning of Act I, we hear Prince Tamino’s breathlessness in the broken, jagged setting of his first words. Whether or not we see the killer snake is less important than feeling Tamino’s sense of impending danger. When he is later shown the image of Pamina and falls in love instantly in the famous so-called ‘Portrait’ Aria, all of those broken phrases are joined together into an endless melodic line; after all, when infatuated, one enthuses without seeming to take breath. (You will applaud many vocal pyrotechnics in this performance, but save something special for Tamino at the end of this aria with its combination of relentlessly high tessitura and slow-motion ecstasy.)
The Queen of the Night’s arias in both acts of the opera portray an altogether different type of in extremis. While she may elicit Tamino’s sympathy for her suffering at her first appearance, she fails to do so ours; her words conflict with vocal writing that suggests someone both coldly manipulative and hysterical. We associate much of the feelings she describes with a loss of control, whereas the coloratura roulades and pinging high F-naturals that Mozart prescribes for what must surely be the most courageous singer onstage in this show demand the utmost calculation. We are meant to be unsettled. Mozart is telling us there is something wrong with this character.
There is none of this needless complexity in the character of Papageno. His aspiration to a state of simple, sexy domesticity (one suspects Mozart was rather keen on this as well) is espoused in similarly simple and plainly-contoured tunes over a bouncy-bouncy tonic-dominant harmonic base that were obviously intended to be the ones the audience could sing on the way home. The run of five notes on his pipes when we first meet him is more than a musical signature; it encapsulates the range of his character, experience and expectations.
We sense a similar straightforwardness in the writing for Pamina until her poignant aria in Act II when she mistakes Tamino’s sworn silence for rejection and contemplates suicide. Her vocal line’s slow rising arpeggios are clotted with strange chromatic oscillations (hard to sing on the way home). The words tell of the greatest sweep of despair – she considers herself unloved – but the wormlike shape of the melodic writing puts them into a different perspective: she is sweating on the small stuff.
Mozart’s depiction of the highest state of enlightenment in the character of Sarastro – the voice of God as suggested by Bernard Shaw and alluded to by Roger Covell elsewhere in this program – is in fascinating accord with some Eastern philosophies. The ultimate discarding of ego and relinquishing of self find musical expression in his invocation to Isis and Osiris in the temple ritual that begins Act II. In a circular triple rhythm slow enough to drop tempo (time) off the scale, Sarastro abjures the vanity of a descriptive melody in favour of singing essential harmonic triads, and likewise disdains the futility of high notes for the repose of the longest-held notes at the very bottom of his range over a caramel-coloured orchestration that features trombones and low strings. The effect may be austere, but it is warm and surprisingly open; speed this tune up and add some panpipes for good measure, and it could well pass for a song by Papageno. Or vice versa – perhaps in Mozart’s world of the Flute the wise man is merely the simple man who takes it slowly.
It is a bit of a wait, but counsel any young listener at your side to hang in until our bird catcher gets his girl Papagena just before the end. Their love-struck duet of each other’s name fractured into syllables thrown backwards and forwards is nothing more than baby talk; not just the language of a newborn, but the secret vocabulary between lovers that would cause a degree of embarrassment were it to be made public. Mozart knows that infantilism flourishes behind closed doors.
My own introduction to opera came at the age of twelve when I sang one of the Three Spirits in a production of The Magic Flute, and apart from being prevented by pubertal cusp from having any notion of what being ‘steadfast, tolerant and discreet’ meant – the advice given to Tamino in the first act as he approaches the temples housing the coterie of priests – I recall being most impressed by how high the Queen of the Night had to sing, how correspondingly low the notes in Sarastro’s part, and how much I wanted to play the pan pipes and the glockenspiel.
Decades later, even after having mulled over the work’s Enlightenment message, marvelled at the inclusiveness of Mozart’s humanist view and the yin-and-yang sense that Sarastro can only exist with a Queen of the Night nearby, that there can be no Tamino and a spiritual aspiration without the complement of a Papageno who functions at a purely sensual level, and that all are brought together by what the late authority on world mythologies Joseph Campbell called "the joyful participation of the sorrows of the world", I find that I still want to play those pan pipes, the glockenspiel – and that flute. The latter two have special magic, delivering what most of us want in dealing with life: protection.
One might have thought that writing music with this quality would present Mozart with his greatest challenge. Bristling runs on the glockenspiel, for instance, or something mystical, exotic, strangely inflected from the magic flute in the vein of the flattened sixths that give such ethereal melancholy to the instrument’s solo in the Dance of the Blessed Spirits in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice of 1762, an opera that exercised an obvious influence upon Mozart. Instead, the music sounds completely unmagical, even quotidian. This is hardly a concession to the tastes of the audience of the day, who has by this stage in the story copped an eclectic mix of styles ranging from the serious to the singspiel. Yet Mozart opts for music-box tinkling of a tune that would not sound out of place in a Viennese dance hall when Papageno subdues Monostatos and his slaves in Act I. Likewise, when Tamino and Pamina pass through the final trial of raging fire and rushing water at the opera’s climax, they are shielded only by a flute melody that would, if sung, sound inconsequential in an 18th century drawing room. There is a corollary here with the maxim concerning beauty, the eye and the beholder: Mozart’s message would appear to be that the magic of music lies not in how it is made, but in how we choose to receive it.
CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE © 2011
Madama Butterfly is one of the most finely crafted Italian operas and has outlived, in the public’s affection, its antecedents – John Luther Long's short story and Belasco's one-act play, which bear the same title. In each of its various forms however, the story of the trusting geisha, Pinkerton's child bride, has captured the imagination and engaged the emotions of its readers and audience. In embarking on a new production of Puccini's extraordinarily successful work, we have endeavoured to create a performance environment which facilitates clear and direct story telling, and which reflects the allure and exoticism that Long, Belasco, Puccini, Illica and Giacosa – none of whom ever visited Japan – imagined, as westerners, to be integral to this far away oriental world.
Opera Australia, as an ensemble company, created this production as a "team" collaboration over a period of nearly three years. The two designers were commissioned on the eve of their graduation from the three year NIDA design course, and given studio space within the Opera Centre in Sydney to create the design within the workshops and rehearsal space in which the eventual physical production would be manufactured and the production rehearsed. Our original conductor was involved in the design process from the earliest stages of my discussions and briefings to the designers. Performers, craftspeople and administrative staff were encouraged to feel an involvement and ownership of the journey from design studio, to workshop, to rehearsal room and eventually to the stage and the audience.
Throughout this thorough but invigorating process we were inspired and guided by Puccini's score, by his theatrical instinct and his obvious love for his characters and their story. In creating our own theatrical Japan we have endeavoured to respect the fact that the interpretation of composer and librettists was that of Europeans nearly a century ago. We have borrowed from a number of Asian theatrical traditions to enrich the creation of Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, Belasco and Long. It is the hope of all of us privileged to be a part of this production to honour these great story tellers by retelling the tale of Cio-Cio-San and her American husband with clarity and with love.
True bohemian existence was the time of testing for the young person with talent, his way station before the crossroads leading either to the Academy or, for those who failed, to the charity hospital and the morgue.
- Henri Mürger
When I thought about La bohème conceptually, it seemed vital that we should aim to deliver a production with a deeply romantic and youthful love story at the centre of it – where young artists are happily enjoying 'starving in a garret', where sexual freedom was possible (Musetta claims she can sleep with whomever she pleases, do whatever she wants and be answerable to no one) and where a prostitute (as Mimì is forced by circumstances to later become) could die in the street from tuberculosis without anyone turning an eye.
Puccini set the original opera in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1830. It was a burgeoning time for students, artists and performers – exciting, licentious and reckless. Seductive and destructive...the hedonistic life of the carefree 'Bohemian'. It was also a world perched on the edge of revolution and change. Underneath the gaity of this society there was a subliminal sense of its own looming destruction.
After some research and lots of thought, I decided that the parallel world might be Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was a short and intense burst of time when Berlin became the most attractive and decadent city in Europe attracting artists and bohemians from around the world. Free of censorship, its liberalism was extensive. Drugs and 'free' sex were the norm. Lesbians and homosexuals flocked to be a part of it, as did artists from all over Europe.
Inside this particular conceptual world, Café Momus made great sense as it could become one of the hot-bed cabarets that sprang up everywhere during this period and lit up 'after dark'. Dens of exotic iniquity where 'anything goes'...a bourgeois couple could happily be seated next to fashionable lesbians or same-sex couples without battering an eye. Drugs were available for easy sale and experimentalism was encouraged. Here Musetta could become the seductive, outrageously audacious 'star' of such a Berlin cabaret.
Our four young artists may very well be middle-class boys drawn to the thrill of this 'sin city' and 'slumming it' in a rented warehouse space, where it might be 'exotic' to have nothing in the cupboard to eat. They are having a carefree 'ball'! Of course just outside Berlin there was real poverty, starvation and deprivation. Our self-consumed young lovers would be oblivious to the forces gathering around them that would sweep away their heady, romantic Bohemian lifestyle forever.
I wanted Mimì's death to bring home to the young men the true and terrible facts of their careless existence. Once Rudolfo abandons her because his freezing, drafty abode offers her no comfort and he cannot afford medicine, (because he does not like to work by the sweat of his brow) and then later the Viscount she is escorting throws her out, we hear that she has been living on the streets and sinking further into despair and the illness that – untreated – will kill her. Mimì's story is one of struggling just to survive. As a woman of the period, prostitution was one of the few options available. Love alone cannot save her. And this is a society that, sadly, does not care. Or even notice.
Brian Thomson took the idea up very quickly and soon we were looking at images of the paintings of George Grosz, who so encapsulates the decadent underbelly beneath the glittering exterior of the 'Sin City' at that time. And we were talking about Spiegeltents, cabarets and bureaucratic check points to control the movement of people from one precinct to another (the toll gate in Act III). In only a few years the rise of Nazism would control the movements of whole populations, with hideous consequences.
The creative team of esteemed collaborators, Julie Lynch and John Rayment, costumed and lit the world that took shape in Brian Thomson's model box, and so we set out to create a Bohème that honoured the deeply moving central love story and delivered a world that made sense of both its bohemianism and its destruction, and the tragic death of its most fragile flower.
‘… the main roles of this opera are, and can only be, three: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the chorus of witches. The witches dominate the drama; everything stems from them – rude and gossipy in Act I, exalted and prophetic in Act III. They make up a real character, and one of the greatest importance.’
(Verdi to Escudier, his French publisher, 1865).
Verdi instinctively knew that the Witches in Macbeth were vital not only to the play’s plot but also to its mood and ethos. The story takes place in an almost alien world – distant in place and time, very different from the sophisticated urban and Christian environment for which Shakespeare wrote the play. James I, the Scottish king who succeeded to the English throne after Elizabeth, was a scholar with a particular interest in the struggle against witchcraft and ‘demonology’, and there is no doubt that Shakespeare (whose acting company became the King’s Men on James’s accession) wrote the play in compliment to the new king’s background. Shakespeare refers to the Witches as the Weird Sisters, the old word wyrd having connotations of ‘fate’ or ‘doom’ and connections with figures of pagan mythology such as the Scandinavian Norns. In Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), Shakespeare’s source for the play, they are described thus: ‘the weird sisters, that is … the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.’
The development of a rationalist and scientific world-view in the latter part of the seventeenth century meant, however, that the Witches in this always popular play became mere figures of comedy. They needed to be there for the plot, but the post-Restoration audience couldn’t take them seriously. The first revival of Macbeth on the re-opening of the public theatres after the Puritan hiatus involved a wholesale rewrite by Sir William Davenant: the parts of Macduff and Lady Macduff were built up (to provide a virtuous couple to balance the evil Macbeths), and the Witches became a chorus line. As a contemporary commentator wrote admiringly of the 1671 production:
The Tragedy of Macbeth, alter’d by Sir William Davenant; being drest in all it’s Finery, as new Cloath’s, New Scenes, Machines, as flyings for the Witches; with all the Singing and Dancing in it … it being all Excellently perform’d, being in the Nature of an Opera, it Recompens’d double the Expense; it proves still a lasting Play.
This ‘operatic’ Macbeth remained standard, at least in the comic representation of the Witches, for almost the next two hundred years. Even the famous Mrs Siddons, performing her revolutionary Lady Macbeth in her brother John Kemble’s productions, had to do so in the same show as a large cohort of ‘mingling black, white, red and grey spirits’ and a Hecate played by the beautiful singer and actress Anna Maria Crouch, dressed in ‘a fancy hat, powdered hair, rouge, point lace, and fine linen enough to enchant the spectator.’ Some version of this operatic rendition of the Witches is what Verdi would have seen when he attended a production of the play in London in 1847; the alterations were not removed till twenty or so years later, and Matthew Locke’s mid-seventeenth-century music was the last thing to go.
In a sense, what we hear of the Witches in Verdi’s choruses reflects the traditional conception of them in the early nineteenth century. But a Romantic sensibility, concerning the supernatural, ghosts, and dark forces not subject to Christian rule, had begun to influence a widespread desire to return to Shakespeare’s original conception of all these matters, and Verdi, who knew his Shakespeare well (in translation), aspired to write appropriately strange music within the standard parameters of the operatic chorus of his day.
Unsexing the feminine
Although the chorus of Witches is female, the original text and the libretto both feature Banquo’s line on his and Macbeth’s first encounter with them, ‘You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so.’ This sexual ambiguity, or rather monstrousness, connects subliminally to a basic theme of the play: the natural world has turned on itself. Images of darkness rather than daylight, blood spouting out of wounded bodies, animals eating each other, and worst of all, murdered children, pervade the play. Verdi chooses not to show the most shocking moment in Shakespeare’s play, the cold-blooded murder of Lady Macduff and her children, but he ensures that it is referred to and becomes a vital element in the guilt of the protagonists – particularly Lady Macbeth. It is regrettable that nineteenth-century standards of decency presumably stopped Verdi from setting the Lady’s spine-chilling invocation of the diabolic world when she hears of Duncan’s imminent arrival:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. (I.5)
In her next scene with her husband (I.7) Lady Macbeth taunts his masculinity chillingly with a threat arising from her ‘unsexing’:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me -
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Verdi’s retention of Lady Macbeth’s female sexuality creates a radical difference between play and opera. Of course Shakespeare was writing for a talented boy actor, Verdi for a prima donna. But there is more to it than mere casting issues. With the acceptance throughout Europe of adult actresses working on the professional theatre stage, roles were demanded and written for them of equal power and weight. The consequence was a deeper exploration of, among other things, the marital relationship. Lady Macbeth, in both Shakespeare and Verdi, is a monstrous figure, but in Verdi her unnatural personality is subsumed in her equal partnership in crime with her husband. The most obvious illustration of this is the plot to murder Banquo. In Shakespeare the Lady is already being cut out of Macbeth’s dark plans at this stage: in response to her anxious query ‘What’s to be done?’ about Banquo - prophesied by the Witches to be the father of kings - he replies, "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, Till thou applaud the deed." He then makes the chilling invocation that matches Lady Macbeth’s earlier ‘Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’:
Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wings to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.
Thou marvell’st at my words; but hold thee still;
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill. (III.2)
Verdi picks up just one phrase from this in a solo aria for Lady Macbeth (added for the 1865 revision), as she sends Macbeth off in full knowledge that he will arrange the murder: ‘La luce langue’ - ‘Light thickens’. Instead of Macbeth’s poetic conscience (an aspect of the Shakespearean text that keeps the audience in profound empathy with him) we have the Lady declaring, ‘A new crime! It is necessary! … Oh, voluptuous joy of the throne! Oh sceptre, thou art mine at last!’ Verdi’s Lady Macbeth conforms much more closely to the nineteenth-century stereotype of the villainess at this point, a role she reinforces with her brilliant Brindisi at the feast at which the ghost of murdered Banquo appears (‘Let us empty our glasses to the illustrious Banquo … Scotland’s pride!’). Her active involvement in Macbeth’s crimes is further signaled in the duet (also added in 1865) that closes Act III, ‘Hour of death and vengeance! … The enterprise by crime must end, since with blood it was begun.’
In Shakespeare, however, the Lady is absent for the whole of Act IV, having exited from the banquet scene with a single line prophetic of her next appearance, ‘You lack the season of all natures, sleep.’ Her absence is hardly noticed, as the events of Act IV – Macbeth’s seeking out the Witches and accepting their equivocal prophecies, and the murder of Macduff’s wife and children – take place before our eyes. Macbeth’s solo tyranny has literally silenced the Lady. In terms of modern understandings of mental illness, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking – brilliantly set by Verdi almost exactly as written by Shakespeare – is the sign of ‘a mind diseased’ (V.3) unable to ‘pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow’, because she has so ruthlessly repressed her natural, and particularly maternal, empathy with other human beings (as we saw in her first scene). Lady Macbeth’s determinedly prosaic attitude is encapsulated in her line after the murder of Duncan, ‘These deeds must not be thought After these ways. So, it will make us mad.’ That is, don’t think! Don’t let the conscious brain obsess about this. ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ – but the line comes back to haunt her restless sleep, with its arresting poetic and visual images of perpetual hand-washing. The consequence of this unbreakable cycle is her death, probably from suicide.
Thinking through poetry
Macbeth, on the other hand, constantly thinks about, and verbalises in extraordinary soliloquies, what he has done and how it has changed his sense of himself and of his place in the natural order of things. There is something of Faust in Macbeth – another figure whose pact with the dark forces held a great fascination for Renaissance and Romantic poets alike. Macbeth knows from the moment of Duncan’s murder that he will never sleep again, an innocent, restorative, normal sleep: ‘Glamis has murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more’ (II.2) – his poetic metaphor-making mind sees himself as divided into the murderer and the ‘normal’ person. From his first soliloquy he has shown this awareness of his potential for the split mind of the psychopath: ‘My thought, whose murder is but fantastical, shakes so my single state of man…’ (I.3). His last line after the murder of Duncan is ‘To know my deed ’twere best not know myself’ (II.2). But he does know himself, and in III.2 – the last real conversation between Macbeth and his wife – we see the clear difference in their mental conditions: her vague feeling that things haven’t worked out as well as they should, contrasted with his sense of radical disturbance: ‘full of scorpions is my mind’, he acknowledges, afflicted by ‘terrible dreams’, but he is determined to rub these out with action: ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’
When he hears of his wife’s death in V.5, Macbeth speaks the weary soliloquy of the atheist, beyond even the hope of Christian redemption that torments Faust:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth has an imagination, language and imagery to deal with the burden of his self-fashioning as a criminal. It’s this that allows him to appear heroic as he fights to his death:
Blow wind, come wrack,
At least we’ll die with harness on our back. (V.5)
They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. (V.7)
Verdi does not have time, as the dramatic end of his opera approaches, to give Macbeth poetic soliloquies. He had, arguably, other agendas: to show the defeat of a tyrant, an unequivocal restoration of national order, and the suppression of those forces that create an alternative and dangerous ‘truth’, the ‘juggling fiends … that palter with us in a double sense’, the Weird Sisters.
Emeritus Professor of English
University of Sydney