ACT 1: Tamino, a young traveler who is passing through the realm of the Queen of the Night, is being pursued by a fire-breathing beast. He cries for help and faints with terror. Three Ladies—soldiers of the Queen—hear his cries and spear the beast. Seeing how handsome the young man is, they go to tell their Queen what has happened.
Papageno, a bird catcher, is trying to lure birds into his net using his whistle. As Tamino regains consciousness the birds are scared away. Papageno is a natural improviser and he claims credit for killing the fire-breathing beast. The Three Ladies reappear and punish Papageno for his lie by locking his mouth with a padlock. They show Tamino a picture of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, whom they say has been kidnapped by an evil man- Sarastro. Tamino falls in love with the picture and promises to rescue the beautiful girl. The Queen of the Night arrives and urges a very frightened Tamino to keep his promise and rescue Pamina. To help him he is presented with a Magic Flute. Papageno’s padlock is removed and he is ordered to help Tamino and given a set of Magic Bells. Both instruments, bells and flute, have the power to help their owners and to change evil into good.
Three Spirits materialize. They send the Ladies to sleep and offer to guide the men to Sarastro’s camp. Papageno and Tamino are pointed in the right direction but get separated. Papageno by chance happens upon Pamina with her jailer, Monostatos. Rescuing Pamina, Papageno shows her a picture of Tamino, and she in turn falls in love with him.
Tamino meanwhile has been led by the Spirits to the outside of the camp. He meets a Comrade of Sarastro who tells him that Sarastro is not evil but good. In his confusion and despair, Tamino plays the Flute and it is answered by Papageno’s bird whistle. He runs in the direction of the sound but misses the escapees.
Monostatos recaptures Papageno and Pamina, but Papageno plays his Magic Bells and Monostatos is seduced by their enchantment. As they make escape again, Sarastro’s arrival is announced. Pamina tells Sarastro she was escaping from Monostatos, partly because he attempted to rape her. Monostatos, who has managed to capture Tamino, demands that Sarastro put the intruder to death. Sarastro is angered at the behavior of Monostatos towards Pamina and has him imprisoned instead. He then orders that Tamino attempt various trials to prove he is worthy of Pamina’s love. Papageno reluctantly accompanies him.
ACT 2: At a meeting of the elders, Sarastro proposes that Tamino undergoes initiation into their Brotherhood. If Tamino is successful in the trials, Sarastro proposes that he will hand joint power to both Pamina and Tamino. The elders are at first outraged that a woman should rule over them, but after some hesitation they agree to the plan.
The first of the trials undertaken by Tamino and Papageno is a trial of silence. Pamina appears and innocently tries to speak to her lover; he refuses to answer her words of love and she leaves broken hearted. Papageno, however, cannot manage to keep quiet and he fails the trial.
The Queen of the Night appears and orders Pamina to kill Sarastro, giving her a knife for the task. Sarastro’s Comrades try to restrain the Queen, but are killed by her soldiers as she escapes. In spite of this, Sarastro still pursues his doctrine of forgiveness and reconciliation and refuses to seek revenge.
Heartbroken and depressed at Tamino’s apparent rejection, Pamina attempts suicide but is restrained by the three Spirits. Having completed the trial of silence, Tamino is reconciled with Pamina, and she undertakes to complete his trials with him. Together they complete the second trial, the trial of fire, and go on to the third trial, the trial of water. At first it appears they have drowned, but they revive and Tamino completes his initiation.
Papageno, upset at his failure with the trials and disheartened by his failure to find a woman, contemplates suicide but is stopped by the three Spirits who introduce to him a girl of his dreams, Papagena.
Guided by the wicked Monostatos, the Queen of the Night makes another attempt on Sarastro’s life but fails. Sarastro holds out his hand to her offering reconciliation; she refuses and leaves as the Comrades celebrate the dawn.
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