Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Magic Flute Beethoven Variations - "Only Make Believe"

For Princeton University Concerts I recently contributed some thoughts on Beethoven's variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen." Special thanks to Concert Manager Marna Seltzer and her newly-instituted "Princeton Voices" portion of the concert programs for the opportunity to take a walk down my operatic memory lane and speculate about first-act love duets more generally:

As far as Mozart’s operas go, The Magic Flute was my first love. I’m not sure why I bought that particular box set my first year of college and not a Don Giovanni or Figaro. Although the cast is more than respectable—Samuel Ramey as Sarastro, Francisco Araiza as Tamino, Cheryl Studer as the Queen of the Night, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting—it’s not a necessarily legendary recording. But when you’re a newcomer you don’t quibble over particulars, and this version had more than enough to seduce me. My enchantment was no likely aided by the fact that I was studying German at the time; in retrospect, the lofty rhetoric and melodramatic gestures of the libretto must have stood in stark contrast to the everyday language skills I was seeking to acquire.

In The Magic Flute the lovers Pamina and Tamino must endure three trials to prove their love and reach their happy ending. But this doesn’t happen until after intermission. You certainly don’t want the audience to wait until the second half for a good love duet, and why let the plot hold you back? In this sense we can hear the duet between Pamina and the hapless Papageno—“Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (“A man who’s touched by love’s emotion”)— as a classic conditional love song. Such devices never get old: just ask Jerome Kern (“Only Make Believe” from Showboat) or Rodgers and Hammerstein (“People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma!). Unlike Magnolia and Laurey, however, Pamina doesn’t get to sing with her true love; but Papageno hasn’t found his mate either, so they make do with one another, singing in aspirational terms about their yearning:

Love can lighten every sorrow.
Every creature pays her due.
Love today and love tomorrow
Keep nature’s circle turning true.

Beethoven must leave the words of the duet behind to compose for the voiceless piano and cello, but the text seems to linger in a conditional manner. And whether you’ve heard the original duet once or a hundred times, you can hear in each of Beethoven’s variations if not the actual words, an abiding sense of aspiration. Each variation is something of a pleasant trial, with each iteration getting us closer to the goal: “The greatest joy that each may own— / To live by love, by love alone.”

(Translations are by J. D. McClatchy from his excellent new collection of Seven Mozart Librettos.)

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