Pamina and Tamino (Andrea Rost and Michael Schade) find themselves together at last, but not before a series of ritual trials, and real tribulations.
ACT ONE: After the familiar overture, we find a young prince, Tamino, running for his life from a deadly serpent. He's rescued by three ladies who serve the local ruler — the Queen of the Night. They go off to tell the queen about the young stranger, and Tamino meets Papageno — a man playing pan-pipes and dressed in feathers. He says he's the queen's bird catcher.
The ladies return and show Tamino a picture of the queen's daughter, Pamina. Tamino takes one look and immediately falls in love. But Pamina has been captured by Sarastro, the queen's arch enemy, who is described as an evil fiend. The Queen of the Night arrives with her signature clap of thunder, asking Tamino to rescue her daughter. She gives him a flute with magic powers and sends Papageno along to help, with a magic instrument of his own, a set of chimes.
The scene changes to the realm of Sarastro, where Pamina is being held. She's alone with the evil moor, Monastatos, who seems intent on raping her. Just then, Papageno wanders in. He and Monostatos scare each other half to death, and Monostatos runs off. Papageno leaves with Pamina to look for Tamino. Papageno complains that while Tamino is about to be united with the love of his life, Papageno has no lover of his own.
Meanwhile, three mysterious young boys, working for the Queen of the Night, have guided Tamino to a temple with three doors. One of them, marked "Wisdom," opens to reveal the Temple Orator. Tamino asks about Pamina, and the Orator tells him that she's alive. But to find her, Tamino must first join the temple's holy order.
Tamino plays his magic flute and in response he hears Papageno's pan pipes. Papageno appears with Pamina, and they are both running from Monostatos. He's about to catch them when the mighty Sarastro appears and reprimands Monostatos for his evil designs on Pamina. Sarastro offers Pamina and Tamino the chance to be together. But first, he says, they must undergo rituals of purification, and they are led into the temple.
ACT TWO: During the complex course of the second act's nine scenes Tamino undergoes his series of ritual trials — tests of fire, water, air and earth — and Pamina endures trials of her own. She again has to escape the rapacious Monostatos. She must also refuse her own mother's order that to set matters straight and restore their family's power, she must murder Sarastro. (This command from the Queen of the Night is delivered in what may be Mozart's most famous aria — complete with four, high F-naturals that seem to defy gravity, not to mention vocal chords.) To top it off, Pamina is falsely led to believe that Tamino has rejected her — twice. The second time she nearly commits suicide.
By the end of the opera, Pamina and Tamino have survived their trials together. Papageno earns a wife — his female namesake, Papagena — and the Queen of the Night has vanished into darkness. As the opera ends, Sarastro's mysterious but apparently benevolent Order has prevailed, granting all power to beauty and wisdom.