As many people might know, Papageno is a fictitious character that, being a protagonist of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, enjoyed an immortal fame.
Let’s take a closer look…
In Mozart’s Singspiel, firstly performed in 1791, Papageno is the funny counterpart of the noble prince Tamino: the braver is the latter, the more fearful is the former, the more austere is the one, the more the other enjoys his food, being driven by a lighthearted joie de vivre.
You can easily find in this character many traits of Hanswurst, the comic figure of the early 18th century’s Viennese comedy.
As Tamino faces dangers with the help of an airy sounding flute, Papageno carries a panflute.
But let’s look at him on the stage…
Right from the start, he shows himself as an odd character: announced by his own pipe, a birdcatcher appears, carrying a cage on his back and claiming he can camouflage himself thanks to a funny feathered costume. But soon he reveals his bragger’s nature: as prince Tamino comes round, he claims to be the killer of the monstrous snake menacing his life. But the three Ladies, maidservants of the Queen of the Night, immediately punish him, closing his mouth by a padlock. On condition that he follows the prince on his mission to free Pamina, Papageno obtains then the padlock to be removed and gets a set of magic bells.
And again another clownish scene: when Papageno finds Pamina harassed by the wicked blackamoor Monostatos, he manages to put the latter to flight not so much by virtue of his bravery as of his nutty look, specular to the jailor’s one. Both of them run away hotfoot, being frightened by each other. Left alone with Pamina, our character shows a deeper trait of his nature: his desire to meet a beautiful maiden who reciprocates his love acquires, thanks to the music of Mozart’s, a nobler and higher dimension.
And once again, Papageno stops Monostatos’ arrival, when the blackamoor tries and grab Pamina again, thanks to his magic bells.
Their sound produces a sudden metamorphosis in the jailor and his henchmen: in an instant they start singing and dancing happily, oblivious of their mission!
For a moment, the magic of music hauls them all in a heavenly place where love and happiness reign.
In the second part, then, Papageno will counterpoint, with his hesitations and grumbles, Tamino’s resolution facing the initiatory trials they must undergo.
Pamina herself, feeling avoided by them, is the first contemplating suicide, only detained by the arrival of the three child-spirits.
Then it’s Papageno’s turn: the scene of the attempted suicide, as E.J. Dent the musicologist remembered, was in reality a traditional Harlequin’s monologue in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.
He is saved by the three child-spirits, too: they remember him the magic power of the bells he was gifted at the start of the story.
And then finally Papageno meets the long desired Papagena!
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- Edward J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas, Oxford University Press