OPERA IN WILLIAMSBURG’S DIE ZAUBERFLOTE: MUSICAL MAGIC

Bernard Shaw considered Mozart’s ZAUBERFLOTE, The Magic Flute, to be “the first oratorio of the religion of humanity.” On the other hand, opera historian Gustav Kobbe considers the libretto to the Magic Flute “such a jumble of nonsense that it is as well to endeavor to extract some sense from it.”[i]

Nothing perplexes viewers as much as the sudden, mid-course change in the persona of the Queen of the Night. Opera director Ingmar Bergman  found that connecting Pamina with Sarastro as daughter and father, went a long way to resolving the matter. In her program notes, Opera in Williamsburg Artistic and General Director Naama Zahavi-Ely agrees.

Contemporary psychology provides major insights to unravel the Queen’s paradoxical behavior.

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is many things in one: a fairy tale, a political and social allegory, an archetypal account of the evolution of human consciousness, and an exposition of the ideals of Freemasonry. Psychologist Erich Neumann has described the opera as “a multi-level mystery drama…The many layers of the libretto are analogous to a dream, expressing many levels of consciousness and of the unconscious.”[i]

Drama, it has been said, tells the story of families being destroyed or being created, The Magic Flute can be seen to do both in one puzzling story.

The family being made is the one which will arise from the love between Pamina and Tamino. The one being destroyed is a trickier one to discern. It involves the battle between The Queen of the Night and her husband, Sarastro, for the custody and education of their daughter, Pamina. While the exact relationship between The Queen and Sarastro is unclear, Ingmar Bergman seems to have solved the question byseeing Pamina  asSarastro’s estranged and alienated daughter.

Critics have been baffled by the drastic change in the Queen of the Night, from honest worried parent to lying deceiver. If she is lying from the very beginning – especially lying about the death of Pamina’s father and  about the personality of Sarastro – then her character doesn’t change. She is simply revealed as a captive of the Dark Side. Erich Neuman again explains. “She embodies what the moralizing masculine conception of virtue experiences as ‘evil’. In the action of the opera she becomes the representative of all the dangerous affects, particularly ‘vengeance’ and ‘pride’…The feminine becomes seductive; by means of delusions, superstitions, and deceptions.” The Queen of the Night is “the aboriginal danger that waylays the Masculine on its path to self-realization….[She] represents  the terrible Mother, the  night goddess aspect of the Great Mother, which the mythological hero is to overcome.”[ii]

In this light, many of the libretto’s perplexities become clearer. The Queen is introduced as a liar. She claims to be a widow and labels her ex-husband, Sarastro. as an evil wizard who has kidnapped her daughter.

As her lies are exposed, the Queen and her three female minions become associated with Darkness, while the object of her revenge,  Sarastro,  can claim the realm of Light. Only a dark mother would command her only child to destroy the child’s father.

Sarastro justifies his possession of his daughter as an attempt to rescue his only child from the evil influence of her troubled mother, whose extravagant coloratura characterizes the Queen’s extreme deluded passions.

Tamino finds the Queen’s lies disabused when he arrives at Sarastro’s temple. When he hears the elderly priest give a true account of Sarastro’s character, Tamino realizes that he has been deceived by the Queen. The priests reinforce the message when they warn Papageno that “Your first duty is to be aware of woman’s treachery, because many men found themselves forsaken, led astray, and ensnared by them.” This advice probably evolved from Sarastro’s  past experience with the Queen.

The negative view is not of all women, however. The Queen is the one and only example from which all the opinions arise. Modern sociology and psychology can explain the Queen’s behavior  as characteristic of a woman possessing  a combination of a Narcissistic Personality and a Borderline Personality.

The Queen of the Night is a textbook example of the Alienating Parent. As Neumann says, Terrible Mothers never want to give up their child. Terrible Mothers’ ‘love’ is the expression of a will to power that does not let the child’s life achieve autonomy. Typically, the Queen of the Night, like all alienating mothers, exploits her child for her own purposes. She functions according to an all-or-nothing principle. Of Tamina, her child, she requires absolute obedience as the only acceptable basis for a relationship. Eventually she demands that Tamina become an Erinys, a Fury, a goddess of Vengeance, representing her mother’s will to destroy.

As a narcissistic alienating mother, the Queen of the Night uses her child as a weapon, a pawn in her battle to destroy Sarastro, all the while  claiming to be protecting Pamina against the evil other. In fact, by using her daughter in her perpetual fight to hurt the other parent, the Queen of the Night is not interested in what is best for Pamina.

The Magic Flute  depicts the coming-of-age of Princess Pamina. Her estranged father kidnaps her, or so it seems to Pamina, from her adored mother, who immediately hires a young rescuer, Tamino. But Pamina’s world turns upside-down, as she and Tamino discover together that her rescue has already taken place–and that they must prove themselves brave enough to bear a purer message of love. An alienating parent usually shows  borderline tendencies in addition to narcissistic ones.

Narcissism is selfishness on steroids.  Narcissistic individuals, like the Queen of the Night, tend to be self-absorbed.  Most centrally, she cannot listen to others’ differing perspectives.  Instead she hyper-focuses on what she wants, thinks, feels, and believes without taking into consideration any others’ desires and ideas.

On the other hand, the central element in borderline personality disorder is emotional hyper-reactivity.  The Queen of the Night’s  excessively intense emotion often gets expressed in symptomatic  musical anger. In addition to getting emotionally aroused too often, and too intensely, the Queen of the Night has the characteristic borderline difficulty in self-soothing. The Queen’s distress thus tends to be longer-lasting than the distress that most people experience. In this regard, she has deficits in emotional resilience, in the ability to recover once she has felt frustrated or disappointed. The Queen of the Night’s borderline personality therefore develops into a victim’s self-image, blaming others for whatever goes wrong—which in turn enables her to victimize others. “I’m a victim so I have a right to victimize you.”

Borderline disorders become evident in the way that an alienating parent twists reality. The Queen offers trumped up accusations against Sarastro, accusations that actually are projections of how she her own attitudes and behavior.

As an alienating parent the Queen of the Night engages in another quintessential borderline pattern, a habit that therapists refer to as splitting. She enlists others to join her side in fighting against Pamina’s supposedly evil father, splitting the family into us against them.

With a borderline personality, the Queen of the Night  gets mad when someone important to them – like Sarastro, Tamino, and finally Pamina – won’t give them what they want. Her goal then becomes to destroy the  relationship. “Decisive steps in the liberation of the daughter from the mother consists in her leaving the matriarchal world for the love of the man and giving herself freely to him.”[iii]

Often the Narcissistic Personality and the Borderline Personality are inherited. That may be why Pamina is included in the Society’s purification ritual, as the only female participant. As Neuman notes “the transformation of the personality is bound up with the symbolism of the Masculine, and the forces antithetical to consciousness, represented especially by the instinctual world of the unconscious, are connected with the symbolism of the Feminine.”[iv] (Wolfgang von Goethe sensed the hereditary aspect of the Magic Flute’s characters’ natures when, in his proposed sequel to the Mozart opera, his Queen of the Night returns to kidnap the child of Pamina and Tamino.)

The Opera in Williamsburg’s strength is in its musicality.  Conductor Jorge Parodi conducts with wisdom and passion, an orchestra of exceptional musicians, led by the wonderful Concertmaster, Simon Lapointe, of the Virginia Symphony. The orchestra complements a cast of uniformly excellent singers.

Pavel Suliandziga’s Tamino reveals a lovely tenor voice, perfectly suited to his relationships with Suchan Kim’s mighty baritone Papageno and Kearstin Piper Brown’s heartbreakingly lovely soprano Pamina. Mr. Kim must certainly be the most handsome actor asked to play a Hanswurt clown figure. The librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, the Jerry Lewis of his time, played Pagageno. So Mr. Kim must be commended for getting such a rousing response without resorting to the lowbrow tricks of the baggy-pants comedian.

Laura Martinez Leon’s glorious coloratura voice is perfect for the Queen of the Night. She knocks the second act’s “Der Holler ache Koch in Meinem Herzen’ out of the proverbial ballpark. Her backup singers-  soprano Michelle Trovato, mezzo soprano Kirsten Scott, and  mezzo-soprano Agueda Fernandez Abad, (recognizable from the company’s earlier Carmen) – provide vital presences both in their strong singing and in their imaginative acting.

The Sarastro of Denis Sedov reveals one of the most powerful bass voices you are likely to hear. It is riveting. His surrounding court is comprised on very fine singing-actors – his servant Monostatos is  cleverly played more as the school geek rather than as a lecherous sex monster Priests Timothy Stoddard and Adelmo Guidarelli are a fine pair of singers who find the comedy in their roles and do a fine bit of dancing.  Bass-baritone Yuri Kissin’s Speaker dominates his scenes without upstaging anyone. The Three Spirits who pop in periodically to advise Tamino all sing very well. Kudos to April Martin, Megan Pachecano, and Alison Cheeseman, although what kind of spirits they are. They lacked a definition which could give them more to do and prividethe audience with some clarity as to where they’re from and who they are.

Director Eve Summer keeps the action brisk and bubbling. Three scenes stand out: First, Pamina’s dramatic exit after her “Wie? Auch du?”. Second, Tamino and Pamina’s adventures in fire and  water.  Here Mathew Ishee’s subtle yet dramatic lighting enhances Ms. Sumner’s simple but effective staging. Third is the final scene between Papageno and Papagena, played with great chicken-esque fun by Megan Pachecano. The moment is imaginative and delightful.

On the debit side, substituting the serpent we thought had been slain for “wild animals and birds of every kind” seems a serious lapse in thematic  judgement. The slaying of the serpent and all it historically represents to Western civilization is an important statement for beginning a tale of salvation and purification. The flute given to Tamino certainly wasn’t intended for him to resurrect the personification of evil. And to think that Satan-in- Disguise could be transformed and domesticated into a cute frisky fellow is ludicrous.

The projected backgrounds by Naama Zahavi-Ely are simply beautiful. They hark back to the early days of opera production when every new opera house came with a set of generic rolled drops – forest, mountain top, palace, hut, woods, seacoast, ship, etc. Flat backgrounds seem right with these operas since the operas were written for that convention. Not until the publication in 1895 of the Swiss designer Adolph Appia’s La mise en scéne du théatre Wagnerien did the need for three-dimensional scenery enter the operatic world. Suddenly theaters were not large enough to house many huge off stage settings waiting to be used in subsequent scenes. Appia also spurred the developed of a stage lighting formula which would reconcile the actors with the new three-dimensional scenery.

So, it was wonderful to see flat scenery, especially images so lovely and so consistent in artistic style.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the costumes. Renting selected costumes from a costume collection is a wonderful idea. The trick is selecting appropriate costumes . That did not happen this time.  The costumes  sparred  with the projected backdrops. They seemed to be from different productions. They seemed separate visions. In fact, the costumes selected even clashed  with one another. The costumes were unified in no way – not line, not silhouette,  not mass, not texture, not coloration (hue, value, saturation, temperature), not even  historical period  or geographical location. “Fantasy” is a generalization which must achieve specification in production. The Queen of the Night looked like a sparkling leathery Catwoman, her attendants seemed to be freelance Valkyries,  Other characters wore Japanese garb, some wore Roman centurion clothes, others wore  layers of fabric without rhyme or reason. The spirits wore tailored 1980s style pants suits of undefined origin for unknown purposes. The program lists  Eric Lamp as the costume designer.

Nevertheless, the production produced joy, and that is always to be applauded. One should always welcome the opportunity to hear Mozart’s  inspired music and embrace the ensuing delights.

Thank you, Opera in Williamsburg!

[i] Erich Neumann. The Fear of the Feminine and Other Essays on Feminine Psychology. Princeton University Press, 1994.

[ii] Neumann

[iii] Neumann.

[iv] Neumann.

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