Accessible Arias: The Queen of the Night’s Act II aria from The Magic Flute
A look at one of opera’s most famous arias: Die Zauberflote’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’
The arias in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) offer a vivid series of vignettes. Papageno’s introductory ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’ immediately conveys his winning if occasionally brainless charm. Tamino’s ardent ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ shows that he is clearly the man for Pamina. And while the intensely moral Sarastro occupies the depths of the vocal range with his ‘O Isis und Osiris’ and the gentle ‘In diesen Heil’gen Hallen’, his adversary, the wicked Queen of the Night, spins stratospheric magic with her aria ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’.
Mozart knew the theatrical troupe of his librettist (Emanuel Schikaneder) well. He made several visits to the Freihaus Theater an der Wieden where the troupe performed, and conceived the roles in his and Schikaneder’s operatic collaboration for specific members of the company. Mozart knew thesoprano marked to sing the Queen of the Night particularly well, as she was his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer (née Weber).
Despite her famously high tessitura, Hofer was reportedly rather underwhelming on stage. So Mozart did her a huge service in writing this virtuosic showpiece, and the Queen of the Night’s Act I aria ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’. ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’ is a literal high point of the score of Die Zauberflöte and Hofer, unwilling to let others dazzle in her role, continued to perform the Queen for a decade after the premiere in 1791. ‘Der Hölle Rache’ has remained a must-sing aria for coloratura sopranos ever since.
The Queen of the Night sings this aria to express her fury and longing for revenge (‘rache’). Mozart chose the key of D minor for this aria. It is a key often associated with tragedy, and prevalent in the Requiem that Mozart was writing, that would dominate his thoughts in the weeks following the premiere of Die Zauberflöte.
The aria contains marked dynamic contrasts, accents land on and off the beat and the vocal line is often highly chromatic. Rather unexpectedly, after the opening bars the music suddenly moves to F major, the relative key of D minor. Gaining in confidence, the Queen scales the vocal heights. The Queen tells Pamina that if she does not kill Sarastro as the mother has asked then she will no longer be her daughter, and sings a series of repeated notes on a high C before climbing even further to several dizzying top Fs. Nothing, it seems, can stop her.
After Sarastro’s thoughtful hymnic aria ‘O Isis und Osiris’, the Queen’s virtuosity is all the more staggering. And however hollow her threats will prove – she clearly does not know her daughter’s moral strength – the aria could not make its point any clearer. The recurrent gestures, manic twists and turns and final ferocious D minor cadence place a thrillingly thunderous cloud of wrath over the proceedings.