Klemperer’s Flute

The Magic Flute, stage design, Karl Schinkel, Berlin, 1815

One day last week, probably the one on which I had finally made a successful quiche for our dinner, we settled in afterwards to listen to the 1964 Klemperer Magic Flute. A non-trivial point—the quiche—as it may account for an unwonted mellowness and receptivity on my part, not to say a certain smugness, which never augurs anything good.

We discuss the recording in keen anticipation. Gedda and Janowitz, Frick and Popp, Berry and Pütz, and to top it off an astounding casting profligacy. Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Marga Höffgen, all then in prime voice and fame, as Ladies One, Two and Three.

Like other major recordings of Magic Flute of that time, the Klemperer dispenses with spoken dialogue. Wave on wave of uninterrupted tone-poem of contrasting moods and mounting dramatic intensity. The tinkling business and romantic ninnies all well and good, but the paydirt for me, without doubt, the teased-out erotic history of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night and the strange evocation of Masonic brotherhood as the highest form of Enlightenment. The majestic bass airs of Sarastro, “O Isis und Osiris,” “In diesen heil’gen Hallen,” I always feel in my own sternum as an electric charge, and thus on this occasion further susceptible to what I felt to be the overall solemnity, measured dignity, wholeness of vision, in Klemperer’s direction.

Penny looks up from her book when the opera has been going on for a while, and says, “I hate it.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Everything sounds the same.”

“Well, why shouldn’t it?”

“It’s not Mozart. I miss the dialogues.”

“Must there be only one Mozart?” I say. “Why not Mozart as Wagner? Magic Flute as Parsifal?

Pathetic, I realise, as the words die on my lips, met with the silent but withering scorn any appearance of Wagner as ploy in an argument must deserve.

It is two or three days later. At Famoso’s, where we always have the Margherita pizza with arugula. The bakers now know without being told that we like to have this well done, with black spots around the crust. Apropos of nothing we have been discussing, Penny says suddenly, “I really hated that Magic Flute.” I realise for the first time how much real pain she felt in this, a violation of something signal.

I remember then a remark of Theodor Adorno, that after Mozart’s marriage of the Enlightenment and popular entertainment, “it was never again possible to force serious and light music together,” and that I had once proposed to a colleague we organise a seminar on Magic Flute, based on this premiss. It is too bad we didn’t do it. I had perhaps been wiser as a result.