The characters of Die Zauberflöte: thumbnail sketches

Die Zauberflöte is a fairytale. The traditional oppositions between the characters of the chosen ones (Tamino/Pamina) and the non-initiated (Papageno), the good and wise (Sarastro, the priests) and their enemies (the Queen of the Night, the Three Ladies, Monostatos), are clearly motivated in dramaturgical terms, even if this does not forbid us from seeing them in a slightly different light. Here are a few cursory – and personal – sketches of them, rather like those one might make for use, say, in a little puppet theatre.

Papageno : the birdcatcher, a clumsy, comical character written for the librettist to play, is the heir to the Kasperl and Hanswurst figures of Viennese popular theatre, a trace of whose accent he retains. The attribute of this ‘know-all’ who really knows nothing is a set of panpipes that can charm birds (he will also make incidental use of a set of magic bells). In a sense he lies at the centre of the opera: his failed, even parodic initiation sets in perspective the gravity of the itinerary followed by the Tamino/Pamina couple and the solemnity of a discourse which thus always remains human and accessible. He emerges as an amiable coward with a tendency to put his foot in it, deeply in love with life and with his Papagena, and his feathered person and catchy tunes add a touch of bright colour to the austere interplay of shadows and light which structures the drama.

Tamino : the young man is in love with Princess Pamina. We admire his fine bearing, his extreme sensibility, his steadfastness in the trials, his sublime arias. Yet he makes an unexpected entrance by fainting before a serpent that pursues him. Of course it is not the serpent that frightens him, but what it symbolises. The Three Ladies save the young prince, the better to deceive his innocence and subject him to the power of the Queen of the Night. Only once he is inside the Temple does he understand that he has been tricked, a sign that his initiation has been successful. It is on this initiation of Tamino and Pamina – and alongside them the audience – that the entire drama rests.
His attribute is a flute. As his initiation progresses, he will discover all its enchanted powers: it can charm the animals of the forest and will assist him in passing through the terrible trials of Fire and Water, thus helping to make the world a better place.

Pamina : the object of both the noblest and the basest desires (Tamino and Monostatos respectively), she is Tamino’s reward for successfully undergoing his initiation.
She is depicted in a portrait given to Tamino by the Three Ladies, in which, according to Papageno, she is seen with dark eyes, red lips and blonde hair.
She encounters her beloved in a particularly dramatic scene, only to be separated from him again until they are at last reunited to accomplish the final trials of purification together.
As the daughter of the Queen of the Night, she is torn between her filial love and her love for Tamino. She plays an active role on the path towards wisdom, leading Tamino behind her in the final trials. Mozart assigned her the most deeply-felt arias, quivering with emotion, sometimes desperate, in which she displays a nobility and resolution that foreshadow the qualities of the heroines of early Romanticism, such as Beethoven’s Leonore or Agathe in Der Freischütz).

Papagena : she appears quite late in the opera, in a comic role (disguised as an old woman both physically and vocally) that culminates in a magnificent love duet with Papageno (the only true love duet in the opera). The Second Priest had promised her to Papageno if he passed his trials. Since such is not the case, she appears to him in the least attractive form imaginable. Yet love will transform her into a beautiful female birdcatcher. Her role is at once tender and mischievous.

The father and the mother : Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. They too may be seen though the eyes of childhood.

Sarastro : outward appearances suggest that he must be evil; his authoritarianism and severity, his henchman Monostatos, everything seems to indicate that he belongs to the camp of the villains. But his teachings, which guide Tamino and Pamina towards the truth, gradually reveal his deep wisdom and his great kindness. In the end he repudiates Monostatos and condemns him.

Monostatos : a Moor, ‘the same colour as a black ghost’, as the libretto indicates. His sole obsession is to possess Pamina. The Osmin of Die Entführung aus dem Serail is not so far away. This libidinous grotesque will be swallowed up by hell along with his new mistress, the Queen of the Night.

The Queen of the Night: : the better to dupe the innocence of Tamino, Papageno and Pamina – not to mention the audience – she seems kindly and protective at the start of the opera. The knowledge they acquire through their initiation will enable the young people to free themselves from this cruel mother-figure, dangerous, manipulative, and ultimately bound for hell; but not before she has gratified us with two furious, vengeful arias in which she comes close to madness. No other ‘drama queen’ has ever had such fearsome arias to sing in the entire history of opera.
Finally we may mention the Three Ladies, who assist her in her nefarious deeds as an emanation of her will.

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This blog is dedicated to the release of Mozart: The Magic Flute by René Jacobs, to be released on harmonia mundi by the end of September 2010. Enjoy the discovery of this tremendous recording.