I do hope that none of you forgot it was Mother’s Day yesterday. Last week, appropriately enough, I spent a little while thinking about mothers in literature for the Spectator. It transpires that good mothers in books are few and far between. However tricky your mum, she’ll seem a treat after considering the likes of Medea and Mrs Bennett.
These ponderings about literary mums were buzzing around at the back of my head, when I went to see my younger brother-in-law conduct a very impressive student production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the weekend. This was actually my second Mozart experience of the week. The first was during an MRI scan, when I spent a peculiar sci-fi half-hour in a tunnel having my protons very noisily magnetically aligned, while Mozart was played to me on huge noise-cancelling headphones.
I hate admitting to this, but I really don’t like Mozart. Not quite as bad as Haydn, who I really can’t stand, but still too twiddly and fiddly for me. Give me some meaty Beethoven any day. When the MRI lady asked what music I wanted to listen to, I said classical please; she then said, what sort of classical, I said, oh any sort. She suggested Bach. I said perfect. So there I was, in the tunnel, having been told not to move at all, worrying that I was breathing too vigorously, the weird drilling sound of the magnets began and one of Mozart’s piano concertos twiddled into action. Bonus, I thought. As if it could have got any worse. But I did find myself wondering if it could ever have occurred to Mozart that a couple of hundred years after his death his music would be played in such a deeply weird situation.
For me, Mozart operas are the exceptions that prove the rule. I absolutely love them. All the silly trilly bits that I find so annoying in his other music, no longer sound twee and fiddly, just wonderful and fun and even quite beautiful.
The Magic Flute was a far more pleasurable Mozart experience than my MRI scan. Although, after the MRI scan I was left with some far-out pictures of my wonky spine, whereas The Magic Flute just left my spine feeling distinctly tingly. My favourite arias from the opera have always been the fun and silly Pa-pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa-pa one sung by Papageno and Papagena towards the end, and the wonderfully melodramatic Queen of the Night one, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’. Here is Diana Damrau singing the latter:
I bet now your spine’s tingling too.
The Queen of the Night is really an amazing lady. She is undoubtedly my favourite literary (or operatic) mother. First of all, she enters with thunder and lightening. Here is a picture of the set design for her arrival from an 1815 production.
Her first aria is almost as wonderful as her second. Here’s Natalie Dessay:
Within five minutes, she manages to get a man under her control and sends him off to rescue her kidnapped, beautiful daughter. Just like that, the Queen of the Night has set her daughter up with a Prince. Mrs Bennett, touché.
Then, via her three ladies, she gives Prince Tamino the magic flute of the title, which enchants and brings happiness to anyone who hears it. She also gives Papageno, the bird catcher, the silver bells which will end up saving his life more than once. So far, so perfect. She is the bestower of magical gifts. She sets the plot in action. She gets her daughter a princely husband. Really, a bloody wonderful mum.
But everything becomes more complicated once Sarastro comes on the scene. Suddenly, the Queen of the Night is cast into shadow, she is just ‘Ein Weib tut wenig, plaudert viel’ – a woman who does little and chatters much. Chatter! Definitely the wrong word for that incredibly striking aria.
Now we’ve reached the bit of the opera which can drag a little. Here is all the Masonic stuff, where everything is about the number three, and Tamino has to go through various (well, three) tests in order to prove himself worthy of Pamina and a successor to Sorastro. When Pamina asks to be freed and go back to her mother, Sorastro says she can’t because her mother is ‘stolzes’ – proud, and that:
Ein Mann muß eure Herzen leiten,
Denn ohne ihn pflegt jedes Weib
Aus ihrem Wirkungskreis zu schreiten.
A man must lead your hearts
For without him every woman is
misguided to step out of her sphere.
Hummm… not really the view of the minute is it? Do we really believe that Sarastro has kidnapped Pamina just so a man can rescue her? This bit of plot feels very problematic to me. I remain unconvinced of Sarastro’s goodness and very reluctant to see the Queen of the Night cast as a villain. But anyway, on it plods…
AND THEN … The Queen of the Night reappears with her infamous aria, in which she commands Pamina to murder Sarastro. Clearly she’s as fed up with his misogynistic waffle as I am! If only Pamina would agree to murder him, then it would be a far more exciting opera. But she refuses. Poor old Queen of the Night has well and truly lost her daughter. She will reappear again at the very end in a last ditch attempt to storm Sarastro’s temple, but fails and is cast out to the night. Perhaps she can at least console herself that she’s succeeded with her match-making and that Tamino and Pamina will live happily ever after.
Whether we see her as good or bad, the Queen of the Night is certainly one of the most demanding parts ever written for a soprano. Mozart originally wrote the part for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who was known for her incredible voice. It’s the part with the best arias, the part for the best voice. The Queen of the Night – if she has the talent – will always steal the show.
Perhaps it was with this good-bad ambivalence in mind that Whitney Houston (R.I.P.) reimagined the Queen of the Night in her epic eighties hit of the same name.
As she puts it, ‘Don’t make no difference if I’m wrong or I’m right’. Who cares if she’s good or bad!? She is the Queen of the Night and has ‘got more than enough to make you drop to your knees’. Really this is the important thing. She’s the most impressive character, the one you come away remembering.
The Queen of the Night is by far and away the coolest literary mother. Only thing is, she might be a bit of a tough act to follow.