Mozart censored? Operas did sometimes have to clear hurdles in the century of their creation, but actually I was thinking about the censure of a modern audience.
And so I continue to ramble about late Mozart, inspired by a happy convergence in Toronto musical scheduling of the three great works of his last year, namely his Requiem, La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute (opening this weekend at the Elgin Theatre). Going back to last summer, when I was consumed with Beethoven’s piano sonatas due to my fascination with Stewart Goodyear’s epic marathon (suddenly on my mind again because i’ve heard that he’s going to do it again in June, in New Jersey), I’ve sought to connect the musical dots, to seek ways whereby a series of events could be like a journey, however tenuous the metaphor. This is easier with the big guys –Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner—than with the more obscure voices, the ‘itinerary’ a matter of serendipitous choice by the powers that be. With the influential composers one doesn’t have to look hard to see connections, because minor composers’ work is like footnotes to the great ones. Poulenc and Parsifal (playing on my PC right now) have a few things in common beside their first initial, even if the segue isn’t an obvious one.
The first part concerned “the Good”. At times in Magic Flute the whole story seems to slam on the brakes, stopping to illustrate something about the nature of good, the nature of life. And Clemenza di Tito is one big moral lesson, seeking to reassure us that we can trust the absolute monarch (at least a good one like Titus). Questions of morality and its signification seemed to be central to both of the operas.
I want to add some caveats: the fine print, if you will, in the legal document. Not all is sweetness and light, but you knew that. A moral lesson would be dull indeed without some transgression. Clemenza di Tito? Never mind those splendid examples of good behaviour. The pair of colourful characters who make the story happen colour outside the lines, namely Vitellia and Sesto.
The most interesting characters in Magic Flute? Not Prince Tamino nor Princess Pamina. Not Sarastro, the wise priest overseeing the temple of wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, Mozart & Schikaneder realized that such solemnity needs the fun of someone breaking the rules, which is why the librettist created such a fun role for himself: Papageno.
And so we come to the first caveat. If you’re one of the chosen you will likely find happiness. Tamino and Pamina are of a special class. Papageno? He’s not up to the challenge, so he can’t make it to the very pinnacle of enlightenment; but a simpler and earthier happiness (less about silence and denial, and more about indulging in the pleasures of life) is available to him.
And then there are two other characters, on the outside looking in. Indeed, that’s precisely how we see them in their last entrance near the end of the opera, as outsiders trying to gain access to a place reserved only for the initiated. These two are the sticking point, the deal-breakers you can’t introduce to your in-laws (as much as you love the Prince & Princess) who would embarrass you. Or maybe they’d lure you away from seminary and get you to run away to join the circus.
For both of these operas, the good can’t be understood without the transgressors. Tito needs Vitellia and Sesto, just as Sarastro only comes into focus with the help of the Queen of the Night and Monostatos. If these characters are bad (and i am not about to say that they are), it’s a fun & flamboyant badness that makes for the most exquisite moments in each opera.
There’s an additional caveat or two, particularly when we imagine Magic Flute for a modern audience. I spoke of a kind of modern censorship, thinking of how Diane Paulus’s version at the COC a few years ago dodged the political objections in the text as written. Sarastro & his brethren valorize a kind of wisdom that they associate with manhood, while being so outspoken against women as to seem decidedly misogynistic. And then there’s Monostatos, whose race is presented as though his colour were somehow a moral issue.
It’s curious that an opera so concerned with being virtuous should be so transgressive according to our modern understanding of good. In the fourth dimension (time) morality is so relative as to be called into question. Do we know what good is? Perhaps we get some idea, in staring at all these options.