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The Scrivener: Another Look At Mozart's 'The Magic Flute', Part 6

...In Mozart's time, when secrecy was absolutely essential because there was fear of eavesdropping and attack, Masonic symbols were drawn on the floor before a meeting commenced. The use of chalk or charcoal meant that if the Lodge was invaded, they could quickly be erased...

Brian Barratt concludes his englightening series of articles about Mozart's sublime opera, The Magic Flute.

On The Stage

Many different versions and productions of 'The Magic Flute' are available on DVD. In this computer era, we can also watch the opera in whole or in part on the Web. We can also read reviews which, understandably, concentrate largely on the music, the conductor, the singing, and individual soloists. The theme of this series of notes has been to trace Masonic references in the music and the words. We will continue this theme by having a closer look at some of the versions of the opera available on DVD.

I have seven different productions of 'The Magic Flute' on DVD. They do not include the 1991 Metropolitan Opera version with sets by David Hockney or the Kenneth Branagh/Stephen Fry 2006 film version, which is set in World War I. For various reasons, I chose not to add these to my collection.

When directors, conductors and set designers offer us their various very different interpretations we have to ask if there is an 'authentic' version. There probably is, in the form of the 1989 production conducted by Arnold Östman at the Drottningholm Court Theatre, Stockholm. The director, Göran Järvefelt, worked closely with the designer, Carl Friedrich Oberle, in an authentically restored 18th century theatre to produce the opera as it would have been seen in Mozart's day.

At the beginning of Act 2, where the High Priest Sarastro sings the glorious aria 'Isis und Osiris', the stage set includes an realistic representation of items found only in a Masonic Lodge — a mat representing a tracing board which is historically accurate for the period, and three correctly positioned candlesticks.

The 1986 production at Sydney Opera House, conducted by Richard Bonynge, included identical items correctly placed. This is not surprising, as it was also directed by Göran Järvefelt and designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle. In addition, the indoor-outdoor set, though modern in concept, is similar in function to the authentic set at Drottingholm. Futhermore, above its portals it has three very significant inscriptions: Nature, Reason, Wisdom.

The Opéra National de Paris production of 2001 has perhaps the most startlingly obvious Masonic symbol on stage. Sarastro does not walk in from the back but is lowered from the top, sitting on a huge and beautifully made reproduction of the best-known universal symbol of Freemasonry, an overlapping compass and square. At the beginning of Act II, he and his fellow priests are wearing replicas of Masonic collars and also the equivalent of Masonic ceremonial aprons. Those we can see in detail are decorated with appropriately authentic symbols.

The adaptable setting designed by John E. MacFarlane is a powerful feature of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2003 production conducted by Sir Colin Davis. While 'The March of the Priests' is being played by the orchestra, the solemnly dark set comes into view. Two or three men are busily writing something on the walls. Although it is illegible, it represents another historical aspect of the use of tracings boards in Lodges in times past.

In Mozart's time, when secrecy was absolutely essential because there was fear of eavesdropping and attack, Masonic symbols were drawn on the floor before a meeting commenced. The use of chalk or charcoal meant that if the Lodge was invaded, they could quickly be erased. In later times, mats and boards were used. These could easily be rolled up or concealed in the event of eavesdropping. A clearer and more easily understandable symbol in the Royal Opera set is an enormous eye which gradually becomes visible at the rear. It represents one of the fundamental symbols found in Masonic Lodges, the All-Seeing Eye of the Deity.

The 1983 production by Bayerische Staatsoper conducted by Wolfgang Sawalisch, though delightful in every way, has only slight visual references to Freemasonry. The stage set for the Temple has a several slender pillars but not in the numbers found in Masonic Lodges or Tracing Boards. There is also a centrally placed dominant pillar surmounted by a globe, which is another relevant symbol.

In the end, whatever our view of Freemasonry or the way it is represented, 'Die Zauberflöte' is surely one of the most sublime musical experiences we can have in the theatre.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2011

Resources used


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Arnold Östman, Conductor, Die Zauberflöte, Drottningholm Court Theatre, ArtHaus 1989.

Iván Fischer, Conductor, Die Zauberflöte, Opéra National de Paris, ArtHaus 2001.


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