The Magic Flute

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Opera in two acts
Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder
World premiere: 30 September 1791, Vienna
Premiere of this production: 25 November 2012, Berlin
Production: Komische Oper, Berlin
In the original German with Polish surtitles

Everything in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute seems like a fairytale and each subsequent idea is a proof of the director’s enormous sense of humour: the composer must have had a lot of fun working with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s score. The red curtain opens to reveal nothing but a white screen where all the frolics will soon take place – the director will juggle elements of silent film, slapstick comedy and cartoon art. His collaborators, Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, also known as “1927”, mixed film animation with live theatre. The effect is stunning. Papageno, the boisterous bumpkin portrayed here as a sad clown channelling Buster Keaton, gets drunk onstage in the company of pink elephants quaffing cocktails from flute glasses. The Queen of the Night is a huge spider, Monostatos appears as a pale vampire dressed as Count Dracula, while Pamina’s black wig with a fringe makes her look like Louise Brooks, the iconic silent film actress and dancer.

Perhaps Kosky’s vivid imagination should be attributed to his origins: the director describes himself as an ‘Eastern European cocktail’ on account of his Jewish, Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Hungarian roots. He also does not hide his youthful fascination with Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, whom he first heard about while a student at the University of Melbourne in the 1980s.

Watching his take on The Magic Flute you cannot help but think that the director takes us back to the beginnings of the film industry, back when the venues where the first one-reelers were shown were known in Polish as ‘kinoteatr’ after the American ‘movie theatre’ and their aim was to provide the audience with simple entertainment. Here, Kosky’s vision, as sophisticated as it is, starts to align with the character of The Magic Flute, nowadays considered as a masterpiece of high art, yet originally written as a cheerful Singspiel (literally ‘sing play’) for the popular Theater auf der Wieden located in the Viennese suburbs and frequented by audiences with ordinary tastes.  

Mozart was commissioned to write The Magic Flute by the theatre’s director, his friend and collaborator, Emanuel Schikaneder. On 30 September 1791 the composer conducted the opera from the harpsichord. It was received enthusiastically and performed non-stop throughout October 1791. The audience even demanded encores, which the composer cheerily emphasised in letters to his wife, Constanze. In the span of a year, The Magic Flute had been performed over a hundred times in Vienna, then ventured beyond Austria’s borders. Two years after the world premiere, the opera was shown in Warsaw, at the National Theatre.   

‘At first glance, the Singspiel’s plot seems rather chaotic. We must accept that it is governed by a different kind of logic which has nothing in common with the adult world and its rationality. We find ourselves in the land of fairytales,’ writes Guy Wagner in his book Bruder Mozart exploring Masonic themes in Wolfgang Amadeus’s music.

Critics spent years trying to explain the eruption of pure nonsense that defines Schikaneder’s libretto. Convoluted as it is, it is definitely open to various interpretations. Barrie Kosky presents it as a logical, yet utterly fantastical tale about the fear of loneliness and the fact that nobody should be alone. The Warsaw production is a restaging of the Komische Oper’s now famous 2012 production which has been successfully shown around the world. Kosky is the general manager and artistic director of the Berlin theatre.



Chorus and Orchestra of the Polish National Opera
Władysław Skoraczewski Artos Boys’ Choir (in the roles of Boys/Knaben)


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    In a dark forest, far away …

    As he flees from a dangerous giant serpent, Tamino is rescued at the last second by the three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night. When he regains conscio- usness, the first thing Tamino sees is Papageno, and he believes him to be his rescuer. Papageno, a bird catcher in search of love, does nothing to dispel the misunderstanding. The three la- dies return and punish Papageno for his lies by rende- ring him mute. They show Tamino a picture of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, whom Tamino instantly falls in love with.Shortly thereafter, the Queen of the Night herself ap- pears and tells Tamino of her daughter’s kidnapping at the hands of Sarastro. Tamino responds with great enthusiasm to her command that he free Pamina. The three ladies give Papageno back his voice and instruct him to accompany Tamino. As a protection against danger, they give Tamino the gift of a magic flute, whi- le Papageno receives magic bells. The three ladies dec- lare that three boys will show Tamino and Papageno the way to Sarastro.

    Pamina is being importuned by Sarastro’s slave Mono- statos. Papageno, who has become separated from Ta- mino on the way to Sarastro, is as scared by the strange appearance of Monostatos as the slave is by Papage- no’s. Alone with Pamina, Papageno announces that her rescuer Tamino will soon arrive. Papageno himself is sad that his search for love has thus far proved fruit- less. Pamina comforts him.

    The three boys have led Tamino to the gates of Sara- stro’s domain. Although he is initially refused entry, Tamino begins to doubt the statements made by the Queen of the Night regarding Sarastro. He begins to play on his magic flute, and enchants nature with his music.

    Papageno meanwhile flees with Pamina, but they are caught by Monostatos and his helpers. Papageno’s ma- gic bells put their pursuers out of action. Sarastro and his retinue then enter upon the scene. Monostatos leads in Tamino. The long yearned-for encounter between Tamino and Pamina is all too brief. Sarastro orders that they must first face a series of trials.

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    The trial of silence

    Tamino and Papageno must practise being silent. Because of the appearance of the ladies and their warnings, their ordeal is a truly testing one. Tamino remains resolute, while Papageno immedia- tely begins to chatter.

    Meanwhile, Monostatos again tries to get close to the sleeping Pamina. The Queen of the Night appears and orders her daughter to kill Sarastro. Pamina remains behind, despairing. Sarastro seeks to console Pamina by foreswearing any thoughts of revenge.

    The trial of temptation

    Tamino and Papageno must resist any temptation: no conversa- tion, no women, no food! As well as the magic flute and magic bells the three boys also bring Tamino and Papageno food, which Tamino once again ste- adfastly resists. Even Pamina fails to draw a single word from Tamino’s lips, which she interprets as a rejection. She laments the cooling of Tamino’s love for her.

    Before the last great trial, Pamina and Tamino are brought together one last time to say farewell to one another. Papageno is not permitted to take part in any further trials. He now wishes for only a glass of wine – and dreams of his great love.

    For her part, Pamina believes that she has lost Tamino forever. In her despair, she seeks to end her own life, but is prevented from doing so by the three boys, who assure her that Tamino still loves her. Gladdened and relieved, Pamina accepts their invitation to see Tamino again. Reunited at last, Tamino and Pamina undergo the final trial together.

    The trial of fire and water

    The music of the magic flute and their love for one another allow Tamino and Pamina to conquer their own fear and overcome the dangers of fire and water.

    Papageno is meanwhile still unsuccessful in his search for his gre- at love. Despairing, he now also seeks to end his life, but is also prevented from doing so by the three boys. Papageno’s dream fi- nally comes true: together with his Papagena, he dreams of being blessed with many children.

    Meanwhile …

    … the Queen of the Night, the three ladies, and the turncoat Mo- nostatos arm themselves for an attack against Sarastro and his reti- nue. However, the attack is repelled.

    Tamino and Pamina have reached the end of their trials, and can finally be together


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