Enchanting and confusing, Die Zauberflöte returns to the house it helped build

However you look at it, the story is confusing. Somehow, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a fairy tale: There’s a dragon, some magic, a quest, good and evil, a couple earning their happy ever after. But there are also side stories and pre-stories and allusions to unexplained symbolism. There is slapstick and inappropriate social commentary. After hearing this famous opera when I was 14, I decided to read a synopsis: With surprise I had to reconcile the exuberant aria of the Queen of the Night with its dark text of rage and revenge. I couldn’t decide if I should take it seriously or giggle.

This season’s opener at the Theater an der Wien will be a new production of Die Zauberflöte, with Belgian conductor René Jacobs leading the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and a hand picked cast of singers. Jacobs, too, has thought about whether the opera is a parody or a morality play. In his exceptional 2010 recording of the work, he included the entire original spoken text (often cut in stage productions) for just this reason, as well as the sound effects called for in the libretto. He describes one such scene: “Papageno smacks his lips. His mouth is full. This is followed immediately by [Pamina’s] heartbreaking aria about taking leave from the world. Both are possible: laughing and crying. That’s its brilliance.”

Capturing the Birdcatcher

Some history might explain a little. At the end of the 18th century, German-language theater troupes started making inroads onto the stages of the nobility, where Italian and French opera had long held absolute rule. These entertainers were a scraggly bunch, of poor repute and often down and out. Troupe directors scrambled for engagements and fought to keep out competition.

The director Emanuel Schikaneder was better than most. He shaped up his crew by making them sign an oath of conduct, still the basis today for performers’ contracts, and took over the Freihaustheater, a 1,000 person venue outside Vienna’s city walls. He and his friend Wolfgang (Mozart) decided to put their heads together to come up with a moneymaker, with Schikaneder writing the text and his friend of course writing the music. It had to contain all the elements of “spectacle” that paying audiences wanted; the characters were inspired by who was sitting at their dinner table.

At the premiere on September 30, 1791, Mozart’s sister-in-law sang the Queen of the Night, Schikaneder played the bumbling Papageno, his daughter Anna was the first Knabe. The composer himself conducted and it was a hit. Ten weeks later, Mozart had passed away. Schikaneder put on a benefit performance for the widow and then went on to a first decade run of 223 showings.

Schikaneder believed in opulence, so his success didn’t make him rich. Nonetheless, he managed to build the Theater an der Wien, opening in 1801 and standing 500 m from the city walls. The freshly minted theater boss had his singers clean up the trash on the banks of the Wien River (where the Naschmarkt stands today), and had a dry road with lanterns built up to his entrance so the city’s finer society wouldn’t fear venturing outside the walls at night.

So despite its “Papageno Gate,” the Theater an der Wien is not where Die Zauberflöte was first performed, although it does play a role in its history. As for the opera’s famously vexing story, it probably was a reaction to rival productions around town at the time, with some morality lessons and Freemasonry notions thrown in, as well as a few jokes and simple leg pulling for good measure.

The new staging by Torsten Fischer will undoubtedly reflect this. If his staging of Salieri’s Falstaff last season at the Theater an der Wien is anything to judge from, we can expect a show that is clever, funny and gorgeous. Last year, he had the singers jumping into a pool on stage containing 190,000 white plastic balls; the audacity and beauty of it still leaves me chuckling.

And Jacobs’ ever high musical standards will certainly have some silly seasoning: “Mozart loved surprises, he liked giving the audience the runaround, or, as he referred to it himself, he loved taking them for a ride. And that’s just what I am doing, together with him.”

Sept 17, 19, 21, 23, 26 & 28, 19:00, Theater an der Wien. 6., Linke Wienzeile 6. theater-wien.at