Der Hölle Rache

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All morning I have heard "Der Hölle Rache" echoing through my head. For those who don't know, "Der Hölle Rache" is an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Even in an Opera as extraordinary as The Magic Flute with its dozens of gorgeous pieces, even in the realm of opera as a whole, "Der Hölle Rache" stands out as a transcendantly difficult and beautiful piece. The aria, sung by the Queen of Night, allows a truly finely trained coloratura soprano to press the limits of her art and voice. Done well, there is nothing in the repertoire to match it; done poorly, there is nothing in the repertoire to match it. Alas, too many who are not truly capable of it attempt it to dismal effect. In the course of this aria, the soprano's voice ascends her entire range and ends up sounding a pure, musical tone at the upper end of the register. Indeed, the Queen of Night's voice becomes the voice of the magic flute--the human element of the voice is gone and all that remains is the pure clear sound of the flute. An extraordinary accomplishment.

What is interesting about the Aria is that its beauty is in direct contradiction to its content. The first line of the aria is variously translated "the wrath of hell burns in my heart" or "the revenge of hell burns in my heart." In the Aria, the Queen of Night sings of her betrayal and adjures her daughter that if one of the characters of the Opera is not killed by this daughter then:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart;
death and despair flame around me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Obviously not a candidate for the mother of the year award. But the aria, gorgeous and corrupt as it is mingles those elements so utterly human so well that it becomes a real metaphor for much that transpires here below. How often do I nurse this very flame? Are there not times when all I really want to do is to even the score? Are there not times when vengeance is justified?

On the contrary, the Lord promises "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19) And what form will this vengeance take? It will take the form of a Man on a cross, arms outstretched through all eternity to embrace humankind. God's vengeance becomes love in the person of Jesus Christ. His vengeance is not against the person, whom He wishes to save, but against the passion that seeks to destroy one of His children. There will be vengeance, the flames of hell will burn hotter, but they will burn for the passion, not for the person. For God's vengeance is against evil and takes the form of salvation, of rescuing from the jaws of Hell all who call on His name.

Oddly enough the sequel to the verse immediately above is the proper formula for Christian vengeance:

Romans 20-21

20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

When we return kindness for hatred, love for hate, compassion for ruthlessness, we are scourging the demons that drive our enemies, we lend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters who labor under the heavy burden of sin, and we become God's warriors of vengeance against the forces that would deprive Him of His children.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is not one, not a single person, no matter how awful, repugnant, terrible, fierce, hate-filled, destructive, out-and-out evil, there is not one whom God does not desire to return home. He wants every one. When we learn how to return good for evil, we become conquerors through Him who conquered death and sin. And as conquerors we become liberators, leading our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.

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I really hope Schikaneder made it to Heaven, because after reading this I would really like to know if any of it occurred to him while he was composing the libretto. Granted, the ambience of the rest of the opera, and Sarastro's aria shortly afterwards in particular, indicates an Enlightenment/Masonic understanding, but Austrians hadn't completely abandoned the faith of their fathers yet.

The opening two lines provide an interesting side light on your point:

The vengeance of hell boils in my heart;
Death and doubt flame out around me.

Death, obviously, but why doubt? If one thinks about the word "Hölle" in a specifically Christian context, one thinks of Satan, raging against God and his saints, attempting to deal death, and yet ultimately failing. I don't know if he knows for certain that he will lose or not, but all the setbacks he has received should produce a powerful doubt if he doesn't know.

And since I'm a nit-picking German speaker I must censure you for ignoring the umlaut (Der Hölle Rache). :) If you like, I can tell you a bunch of tricks for producing them, most of which are pretty easy.

Dear Klaus,

Thank you. I am not a German speaker. I recalled the word with an umlaut; however, none of the internet resources I checked showed it. In addition, some of them had the most hideous contortions of spelling you can imagine. Just wresting this from the chaos of attempted German transliteration was a major feat. However, adding the umlaut now that I have an authoratative voice will be no problem at all. Thanks.



Good post. You make me want to listen to that opera now.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 17, 2006 8:42 AM.

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