Pursued by a serpent, Prince Tamino falls faint from exhaustion. Three Ladies, in the service of the Queen of the Night, slay the monster, and then admire Tamino’s beauty. They fight over who will remain with him while the others fetch the Queen. Not coming to any resolution, all three depart.
Tamino revives and observes the approach of Papageno, who catches birds for the Queen. In the course of becoming acquainted, Papageno claims he killed the serpent. The Three Ladies return and seal his mouth for telling the lie. They show Tamino a portrait of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, and Tamino immediately falls in love. The Queen of the Night appears and asks he rescue Pamina from the temple of the tyrant Sarastro, where she is being held captive. As a reward, the young couple will be wed. Tamino agrees enthusiastically, and the Three Ladies give him a magic flute for protection. Restoring Papageno’s power of speech, they order him to accompany Tamino. He receives a set of magic bells. Three Spirits will guide their journey.
At Sarastro’s temple, Monostatos is charged with guarding Pamina, whom he treats harshly. Papageno enters, and both men startle one another. Papageno recognizes Pamina as the Queen’s daughter and tells her of the ardent young prince who has been sent to her rescue. She takes pleasure in the prospect of love, and Papageno too pines for his perfect mate.
Elsewhere, Tamino comes upon the inner sanctuary, but is barred entrance. He is told that he has been deceived by a mother’s tears – Sarastro is not the evil person she described. Back in Monostatos’ lair, Pamina and Papageno face recapture, but the despot and his slaves are charmed by the magic bells, allowing their escape.
Sarastro enters, and Pamina admits her attempt to flee, but only to rebuff Monostatos’ amorous advance. Still, she misses her mother, but Sarastro proclaims there is still much for her to learn from his tutelage. Tamino and Pamina finally meet, while Monostatos is punished for his dereliction.
Sarastro announces Tamino’s wish to enter the inner sanctuary and his willingness to undergo the trials of initiation. Papageno is more reluctant, but is promised a pretty wife, Papagena, as his reward. The first test is one of silence, made difficult when the Three Ladies attempt to intercede.
Monostatos admits his continued lust for Pamina. Elsewhere, the Queen berates her daughter – the seat of power rests with the all-powerful Circle of the Sun, which was wrongly taken from her and given to Sarastro. Pamina must kill him and get the Circle back – if she doesn’t, her mother will disown her. Sarastro appears and forgives Pamina’s inclusion in the Queen’s wicked plot.
Tamino and Papageno continue to wait out their oath of silence, augmented by thirst and fasting. The Three Spirits then pay a visit and offer refreshments. Pamina is distressed by Tamino’s silence. She fears his love has vanished and considers taking her own life.
Papageno tries to catch up with Tamino but is denied entry to the inner temple. A beautiful woman, Papagena, briefly appears, but is whisked away – Papageno is not yet worthy.
Demented by Tamino’s seemingly broken vow, Pamina wanders aimlessly. The Three Spirits take her to Tamino, who is about to undergo the trials of water and fire. Pamina and Tamino reaffirm their love, and she resolves to go through the ordeals at his side.
Missing Papagena terribly, Papageno is about to hang himself, but is saved by the Three Spirits. To his great joy, Papagena is restored to him, and they rejoice in a future together.
Now in league with the dark side, Monostatos leads the Queen and her ladies in one last attempt against Sarastro, but all are vanquished. Tamino and Pamina usher in a new era of truth, beauty and wisdom.