THE GREAT may be the enemy of the good, but we need to know the good (and sometimes the not-so-good) to make sense of the great. Mozart's The Magic Flute is a great opera, but although we know that it was written for the popular, rather than the court theatre, we don't know much about what the popular theatre offered. Mozart did it best; why bother with the rest?
Yet the Hampstead and Highgate Festival's British premiere of Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosophers' Stone) showed that a minor work can throw new light on a masterpiece. The Philosophers' Stone was premiered at Vienna's Theater auf der Wieden in 1790, a year before The Magic Flute appeared at the same theatre. The theatre's impresario, Emanuel Schikaneder, wrote both libretti, and the plots bear significant similarities: two pairs of lovers, one earthy, the other refined; two competing super-beings, one good, the other bad; sundry curses and magickings.
What's more, research by the musicologist David Buch suggests that Mozart might have contributed to the opera. Mozart's involvement in the duet "Nun, liebes Weibchen" (Now, dear Wifey) was long suspected. Buch has evidence that Mozart composed at least two other sections of the opera; and the work breathes an atmosphere that can only be called Mozartean. …