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Opera plots - Mozart's "The Magic Flute"

Updated on June 3, 2008

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on 27th January 1756 and died in Vienna on 5th December 1791. Arguably the greatest composer of all time, he excelled in many fields of music, including opera. His best-known operas, besides The Magic Flute, are Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Il Seraglio and Idomeneo.

This was Mozart's final opera, receiving its premiere only three months before his death in December 1791. It is an allegorical fantasy, full of fairy story elements and also references to Freemasonry. Mozart and the librettist, Emanuel Schickaneder, were members of the same Masonic lodge.

The music of the opera is notable both for its extreme difficulty and its simplicity. The librettist was also an amateur singer for whom the part of Papageno was written, so his music is notable for having all the lines stated by the orchestra in advance, so that he could find his pitch. However, the part of the Queen of the Night was sung by a soprano of the highest musical ability, as is evident from her famous aria "Hell's vengeance boils in my heart" which is generally regarded as one of the most difficult in all opera. It was famously mangled by Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), who thought she could sing, but couldn't, which didn't stop her from proving the point to thousands at the Carnegie Hall and many places besides.

However, back to the plot. This was originally written in two Acts, but the opera has also been performed in four. As it is easier to take it all in as a four-acter, here we go:

Act 1. A Forest. (This is supposed to be Egypt, which is not renowned for the denseness of its forests)

Prince Tamino has lost his way, and is being pursued by a giant serpent (suspend yout disbelief NOW!). His cries bring three fairies to his aid, who promptly slay the serpent with their spears. A strange being now enters - a man clad in birds' feathers. This is Papageno, who claims that this is by far the best way to catch birds. He also claims that it was he who slew the serpent. The fairies will have none of this and fasten a padlock on his lips to punish him for telling porkies.

They also show the prince a picture of the beautiful maiden Pamina, who is being held captive by Sarastro at the Temple of Isis. Right on cue, Pamina's mother, the Queen of the Night, enters and calls on Tamino to rescue the girl. As is always the case on these occasions, he agrees, and is given a magic flute that will protect him from danger. Papageno is to accompany him, and he is given a chime of bells in place of the padlock.

Act II. Scene 1. The Palace of Sarastro

Monastatos, a moor, has been annoying Pamina with his attentions and is about to make off with her when Papageno arrives to announce the coming of the prince. Pamina makes ready to escape with them.

Scene 2. Entrance to the Temple

The Temple of Isis has three doors. At two of them Tamino is denied entry, but at the third a priest appears and tells him that he is all wrong about Sarastro, who is really the good guy - it's Pamina's mother, who is a sorceress, that he should be worried about. Pamina and Papageno now appear, but Monastatos prevents their escape. Sarastro enters, hears the story so far, and orders that Monastatos be punished. He greets Tamino who, naturally enough, has fallen in love with Pamina, but tells him that he must prove his worth by undergoing a series of ordeals.

Act III. Scene 1. A Palm Grove

The temple priests meet to consider the case of the two lovers and agree that they can be united if Tamino passes the tests he is about to face.

Scene 2. A Courtyard

The first ordeal is that neither Tamino nor Papageno must speak. Three attendants of the Queen of the Night appear and try to tempt them, but they hold firm, although this is a struggle for Papageno.

Scene 3. A Garden

Pamina is asleep and is approached by Monastatos, but he hides himself when the Queen of the Night enters and hands Pamina a dagger, which she is commanded to use to kill Sarastro. When the Queen goes, Monastatos threatens Pamina but is foiled when Sarastro appears.

Scene 4. A Corridor in the Temple

The ordeal of silence becomes too much for Papageno, but Tamino stays silent even when Pamina whispers sweet nothings to him. She is somewhat put out when he refuses to reply.

Act IV. Scene 1. The Pyramids

For his next ordeal, the prince is commanded to wander off into the desert, leaving Pamina behind. Papageno wishes that he had a girlfriend too, at which an old hag appears who turns into the young and pretty Papagena. However, he must also prove himself to be worthy before she can be his.

Scene 2. The Desert

Pamina believes that prince has been faithless to her, by not speaking and then wandering off, and is about to kill herself with her mother's dagger when she is prevented by the temple servants. Papageno is also distraught that Papagena has disappeared, but happiness returns when he discovers that ringing his chime of bells brings her back.

Scene 3. A Fiery Cavern

For the last of his ordeals, Tamino is menaced by waterfalls and tongues of flame, beyond which he can see Pamina. He calls to her, his lips now being unsealed, and the lovers are reunited. A few notes from the flute cause all the remaining dangers to vanish.

Scene 4. The Temple of Isis

Sarastro welcomes the prince and the maiden and joins their hands. Papageno and Papagena also make a lovely couple, while the Queen of the Night and her servant the moor (who would have guessed it?) are vanquished.

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