By 1788, Mozart had fully mastered Classical composition, exceeding all of his contemporaries. With Figaro, Don Giovanni and the Jupiter fully in the rear view mirror, where could he take his art? Mozart, ever the restless genius, was not one to stand still, churning out endless versions of the same thing. By now, he had ascended to the very heights of intellectual society in Vienna. He was a freemason and was absorbing everything the Age of Enlightenment had to offer him. Again, he would use opera as the means to convey his politics and philosophy through music.
Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) was written for the popular theater, a German singspiel. But Mozart had quite a lot more up his sleeve than just music. Nakedly deploying freemason mythology and incorporating the higher mysteries of Egyptian cults into his work, Mozart crafted a brilliant opera that is fittingly for a composer who brought so much joy to so many people, who was beloved by his wife and family, an ode to true love.
The plot, such as it is, is outrageously silly. A prince, Tamino, is saved from a fell beast by three witches who work for the Queen of the Night. A cowardly birdcatcher, Papageno, falsely claims credit and is muted by the witches. The Queen tasks the prince with rescuing her daughter, Pamina, from the evil priest Sarastro. The Queen gifts Tamino a magic flute (and Papageno, magic bells) to help him on his quest. On his way, Papageno meets Papagena (clever, that Mozart) and the Prince begins to suspect that he might be working for the wrong side. Eventually, the two couples must prove their love through tests of virtue before being reunited in the end. The opera presents deep philosophies told through a silly story, but set to some of Mozart’s most virtuosic and enduring compositions.
The Queen of the Night’s two arias comprise the sum total of her appearance in the opera. Maybe 6 minutes in total. But, inevitably, she brings down the house each time. These arias are among the most difficult songs in all of opera. Here is Diana Damrau singing the second of these marvels.
Mozart, Die Zauberflote, Queen of the Night Aria:
The greatest modern Queen of the Night is the French soprano Nathalie Dessay, who is now at the end of her career. She possessed one of the most flexible high soprano voices in memory and could tackle this role with ease. On our honeymoon, we booked tickets for Die Zauberflote in Paris, with Dessay as the Queen of the Night. Naturally, being France, the Opera musicians went out on strike several weeks earlier and we spent more time than we should have during the first two weeks of our honeymoon obsessing about whether they would be back at work by the time our date arrived. As it turned out, the parties reached an accord and our night was their first performance back. There were only two problems. They hadn’t given the staff enough notice to get the costumes and sets in place, so the performance was done entirely in stage blacks. And Dessay, diva that she is, had returned to the South of France and was unwilling to return before Christmas. Her understudy was a bit of a train wreck, but, as I said, the Queen of the Night is on stage for only about 6 minutes. And the rest of the cast, chorus and orchestra were so jazzed to be back, that the entire performance crackled: An old warhorse of an opera was a fresh as a daisy.
I was happy to find a complete video from that 2000 Paris production, which was obviously taken later in the run. The video and audio quality leaves much to be desired, but I’ve included it here for folks who want to see more.
W.A. Mozart, Die Zauberflote: