Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fluted Enlightenment

You can play the Magic Flute in different ways with the central challenge being how to balance the initiation of Tamino and Pamina with the comedy of Papageno and Papagena.

This balanced tension was rather lost in last nights Welsh National Opera production and the whole was suffused with the atmosphere of pantomime (as perhaps befits the season). It was well executed (and beautifully sung) but both the sharper elements of struggle between dark and light, and the haunting elements of transformation clunked into and sat rather uncomfortably for a while before comedy reasserted itself!

The opera is often seen as Mozart's paean to the values of the enlightenment (of which Freemasons were implicated as the champions). The light of reason banishes the superstitions of the past (though the tendency to identify these with 'the feminine' is an ancient superstition of its own)! But it seems to me that the opera (and the history) is more complex than that. There is (or was) in this pattern of Freemasonry a resurgence of the 'esoteric' - a belief in the sacred transformation of human being to which all potentially had access if the 'doors of their perception' were cleansed - even Papageno sees this, every time he settles for a quiet life of simple material pleasures, some 'magical' pressure leads him on to his own image of contented fulfilment in Papagena and family life.

Nor does a simple humanist reading work to explain the initiatory or the magical. It is not simply a metaphor of change, they work as symbols of transformation, nor is it a transformation of human consciousness alone, as it is the whole of nature that shares in the promise - most clearly expressed when Tamino playing his flute, like Orpheus, summons the animals whose life is restored to harmony and paradise.



And simply because it is, I think, the most haunting moment - the pit of the dark where the Queen of the Night demands of her daughter the priest, Sarastro's death on pain of banishment and the breaking of all maternal ties. No trace of pantomime in this performance:

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