Thursday 22 July 2021

Magic Flute and Rhinegold - magical and symbolic operas

It is significant that three of my favourite - the most enduringly interesting, as a whole - operas should share an archetypal and 'Jungian' feel. These are Mozart's The Magic Flue [I mean Flute]; Wagner's Das Rhinegold (Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage is another, albeit musically inferior*). 

Perhaps this is because these are dramatically (situationally, as regards plot) is as high as opera can reach as an art form? 

After all, most operas are dramatic contrivances to produces scenes of strong and essentially 'populist' emotion - love at first sight, a love affair or the start of a marriage, the misery of broken love, pathos at loss, anger and vengefulness. Perhaps Verdi did this better than anyone - and his operas are composed of primary colours, black and white. 

It is the music which sometimes (and there are very few really successful operas - a couple of dozen perhaps) raises an opera above farce and melodrama and sometimes to sublimity. The plots of Mozart's Da Ponte-written operas -The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and (especially) Cosi Fan Tutte - are essentially horrible, shallow, facetious comedies of manners; which I would find intolerable as plays. It is the music of Mozart which raises these stock situations to the Heavens. 

The Magic Flute is my favourite opera, perhaps my favourite music. And this has to do with the fairy tale and archetypal aspects; but also the Masonic symbolism. Now, of course, Freemasonry is ultimately an enemy of Christianity and indeed probably an instrument of strategic evil. Yet here it is, structuring perhaps the greatest music ever written!

This is not uncommon in the arts; including the arts of genius. We are all sinners, including geniuses; and the greatest human creations are tainted with sin. But it is not the sin tow which we most deeply respond in the music of the Magic Flute - it is the Good. 

Because, after all, all evil contains some Good - and early Freemasonry (at the time and place of Mozart) had many good aspects - which rendered it a suitable and effective vehicle for the Magic Flute.  

Das Rhinegold has an extraordinary grandeur and symmetry - really marvelous orchestral writing and effects; and in general Rhinegold is a convincing and enchanting example of world building in opera. 

We feel we are inside the Teutonic legends - living in the heightened reality of gods, nymphs, dwarves, giants - indeed I merely need to think about the opera to get a halo effect on my lived experience. 

Yet, the 'message' of the work is again dubious. The plot is permeated with deception, greed, resentment, lust... and these are not really balanced by any great Goodness or nobility of purpose. It is, of course, the music - and not so much the singing (which is pretty arbitrary) but the orchestral part of the score - that makes the difference. 

In opera it is the music - not the play - which may reach the heights; and the music which can go beyond both the limitations and the explicit intentions of the composer. 

The lesson can be applied to other art forms, and other periods - even nowadays when the evil intent of art, literature and even music is very evident. 

When any artist (and artists nowadays are almost-never genuises, not even minor ones) taps into genuine creativity - he expresses the divine. Which is why there is good that may (with proper intent) be derived even from evil works - and most works (and all modern works) have a far greater admixture of evil than these three operas. 

* The Midsummer Marriage by Michael Tippett is another symbolic and magical opera - indeed, probably the last such to be written in a way that is (just about!) potentially accessible to the intelligent layman (rather than the professional musician). 

While the Wagner and Mozart are susceptible to Jungian analysis (as performed by Robert Donington) - Tippet actually wrote his opera from an explicit and deliberate Jungian schema.  

I would have to regard this Jungian schema as ultimately evil! - because it regards good and evil as light and dark sides of a personality; and aims not to acknowledge and repent sin, but it integrate it in the 'whole' Man. 

Yet, there is enough positive value in Jung to make it an effective basis for a Good opera. In particular - it addresses the problems of alienation and divided mind (the mundane and the enchanted worlds, materialism and spiritual); and the protagonists attain a kind of healing which is a positive outcome. 

With the Midsummer Marriage it is the music which (in parts of the score) raises the whole to greater heights than its flawed plot, clumsy language and (mostly) unmelodic vocal writing; and even than its explicit (wrong) intent. And, as with Rhinegold, it is the orchestra (not the singers) that has most of the musical good stuff.  


William Wildblood said...

The Magic Flue. Is that the one where Dick Van Dyke sings Chim chiminey Chim chiminey Chim chim cher-ee A sweep is as lucky
As lucky can be?

Sorry. I couldn't resist the temptation.

William Wildblood said...

More seriously, the first two are my two favourite operas. The librettos tap into deep mythological wells (literally so with the opening of Rheingold) and the composers respond. The beginning and ending of Das Rheingold are astonishing music and I find Sarastro's arias and the Song of the Two Armed Men (not usually on best of compilations but my favourite) spine-chilling in their profundity. I don't know the Tippet but now I feel should try it out.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William -

Great minds think alike. Maybe you could start the Tippett by listening to the Ritual Dances from the opera - a concert piece, which gives a flavour of the musical idiom: (This is the first of four dances, the others are also available online.)

Then the tenor aria from near the beginning:

(Alberto Remedios was surely a wonderful heldentenor - a working class lad from Lanacashire!)

There is so much that is wonderful in Magic Flute! - a 'hidden' favourite section of mine is the four minute orchestrated recitative role of The Speaker - especially the very last phrase.(Exceptionally well sung here, by the same chap who plays the role on my old Karl Bohm recording.)

This is, apparently, the most Masonically ritualistic bit of all!