A Close Look at Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

On seeing Pamina’s portrait, Tamino is surprised to find himself in love at first sight, and the text of his portrait aria is not a calm, balanced discourse, but is marked by interruptions, fragmentary repetitions, rhetorical questions, and exclamations. The peculiar rhetoric of this text inspires Mozart’s setting and may guide our interpretation of it.

Performers often make a pretty effect by treating a musical repetition as an “echo.” But in this aria, many of the repetitions seem to spring from Tamino’s youthful enthusiasm. Thus, it may be more appropriate to make the repetitions more rather than less forceful. Mozart’s music suggests this approach in bars 18-21. He sets the phrases “Dies Etwas…” and “doch fühl…” with almost identical vocal lines. Notice, however, how much the orchestral responses to the two phrases differ. “I can’t identify this feeling” is followed by a questioning two-note response, “but I feel it burn here like fire” by a passionate leaping figure. The singer’s delivery of these two lines should seem to elicit the different orchestral responses—the melody is repeated, and the repetition is more forceful. Similarly, in the opening, we may reasonably prefer to make the second statement of “Ich fühl es” stronger than the first.

To the eye, multiple flags or beams signal speed, but of course, their speed is relative to tempo. (The obviousness of this statement is not intended to be insulting—even the best sight-readers can sometimes read a rhythm twice too fast.) In the melisma at “Mein Herz…” the thirty-second notes are often incorrectly executed as sixty-fourth notes, with the previous sixteenth extended to a dotted sixteenth. At stake is not simply arithmetical accuracy, but also the grace and smoothness of the passage. Further, extending the E-flat on “Herz” through this misreading will tend to slow the tempo—since the passage lies in the “break,” it can be taxing even without the additional burden of dragging. (Of course, a passage like this would lie considerably more comfortably in the lower pitch of Mozart’s day.)

Following the grand pause, Mozart dictates the dynamics in the orchestra with unequivocal specificity: piano, then a crescendo to forte. Yet, because “drücken” is followed by a comma in the text and a rest in the music, some singers choose to taper this word. I find this choice unwarranted by text or music. Surely, the physicality of the words “I would press her to my hot bosom” elicits Mozart’s forte and strong dotted rhythm! After all, this is not a typically rounded phrase ending: the grammatical clause may end with the word “drücken,” but the larger thought propels us through the next clause. With his markings, Mozart has indicated exactly what the text suggests: a passionate phrase and then a tender phrase, connected by a tense pause, but with no mediation of dynamic. The Adler anthology has a particularly unfortunate error at this point: the D-flat “und” is incorrectly given as a sixteenth, rather than correctly as an eighth. (Also, in bar 27, the lowest note of the final chord should be E-flat, not E-natural. This error appears in the newer anthology published by Hal Leonard as well.)

Not just linguistic correctness, but especially the strong affirmation of the word “ewig” (eternally) demands that the final “t” sound of “und” not be connected to the “e” of ewig. But addressing this from the standpoint of “diction” can cause the singer to break the desired legato. Do not think of separating the sounds, only of beginning “ewig” with significance. Executed without self-consciousness, the “glottal stop” need not be perceived by the listener as a stop. Diction is especially linked with meaning in another place as well: if “soll die Empfindung Liebe sein?” is to sound like a question, the “l” of “Liebe” must be gently emphasized.

With the final repetition of “Ewig wäre sie dann mein,” Mozart indicates a crescendo into the postlude. This phrase requires a full, relaxed breath. Generally, one subtracts the time of a breath from the note before the breath, but in this instance the previous note is only a sixteenth. Here is a case where one must be a “bad musician”—simply add time for the breath, and allow the accompaniment to adjust accordingly. The necessary slowing for the breath may not be marked, but it is implicit in the demands of the passage itself: an emphatic delivery that will justify yet another repetition of the words, and a crescendo that will inspire the rapturous postlude.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.