The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.
In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.
The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.