Though it demands abilities and forces usually found nowadays only in opera houses, Mozart’s Magic Flute is emphatically not an opera. Singspiel, the precise German word for what it is, means a play with singing—something akin to modern musical comedy—and it was first produced by a theater company. Its text is by that company’s artistic director and lead actor, Emanuel Schikaneder (who goes scandalously uncredited in the program for Peter Brook’s new reduced version), who also created the principal comic role of Papageno.
Schikaneder, who has gotten an unjustly bad rap from music critics over the decades, had been friends with Mozart since the latter’s adolescent days in Salzburg; he was widely known across Germany for his Shakespeare performances. Along with materials filched from then-popular novels and plays, he snuck into the Flute libretto a scene merging two famous Shakespearean moments, Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and Iachimo’s rhapsody over the sleeping Imogen. You can gauge the musicality of Schikaneder’s troupe from the fact that Benedict Schack, the original Tamino, did his own flute playing.
Its hybrid music-theater form and its anything-goes fairy-tale genre combine to make the Flute a quirky work indeed. Over the centuries, it has inspired encomia, execrations, ultra-cerebral analyses (philosophic, political, musicological, Freudian), and a raft of attempted sequels, including one by Goethe. Kids adore its spectacle; ordinary theatergoers roar at even its cheesiest low-comic bits; and everybody loves its incredible succession of what can only be called hit tunes. Ingmar Bergman, whose 1975 movie version is probably the most successful cinematic rendering ever made of a work from the operatic repertoire, said, “You can’t imagine what happiness it was to have Mozart’s music with us in the studio every day.” Nobody who knows the piece would disagree.
Bergman invented an ingenious explanation for the strange shift of sympathies that the work invites its hero, and the audience, to make halfway through: In his film, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night are Pamina’s estranged parents; the Queen’s demand that Prince Tamino rescue her kidnapped daughter becomes one more chapter in an ongoing custody battle. Since the two roles are already associated with bright sunlight and dark night respectively, this makes mythic as well as familial sense: Darkness always tempts us, but we need light to live by; we’ll have darkness enough at the end. Meantime, let’s prove that we’re worthy of life’s good things: love, truth, mercy, justice, and—for our lower centers—food, wine, and sex.
Brook invents no explanations. His gnomic 95-minute compression at the Lincoln Center Festival, modestly titled A Magic Flute, omits many minor roles and large segments of the work’s substance, both musical and dramatic. Sometimes the reduction provokes minor absurdities, like Tamino and Papageno singing “Leb’ wohl, auf Wiedersehen” to each other when they’re journeying together to the same place, but the fairy tale’s looseness keeps it from having any constricting effect. The Flute needs some of its accrued ponderousness reduced; its centuries of displacement from theater into opera house have made it over-weighty, as have its now-archaic links to Freemasonry: Mozart and Schikaneder were lodge brothers (Mozart wrote music to accompany Masonic rituals); Schikaneder loaded the work with Masonic images and terminology.
Brook tosses the weightiness aside, making his seven performers act and sing in a soft-spoken style, with carefully grounded emotion that rarely rises to excess. The concomitant stylistic flaw is that it rarely rises to the heights of Mozartian emotion either. Pomposity isn’t wanted, but some bigness is needful. Struggling to rein in her vocal tones, Brook’s unhappy Pamina (Jeanne Zaepffel) makes a muttered, unmusical mess of the pivotal “Ach, ich fühl’s.” Others, notably Adrian Strooper (Tamino) and Thomas Dolié (Papageno) negotiate the stylistic challenge more securely. (The work is triple-cast; pianist Franck Krawczyk, its sole accompanist, adapts effectively to the singers’ various ways of weaving from sung to half-spoken phrases.)
Like the performers’ willed quietude, the spare, Asian-theater conventions of Brook’s staging supply a welcome simplicity but also often register, frustratingly, as mere perfunctory gestures. Of Mozart’s rich excitements, the little event offers only little sample tastes, one of them, ironically, a Mozart song interpolated to pad the tiny role of Papagena—a practice straight from the lavish, Baroque extravaganza mode Brook was striving to deflate.