The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.
In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.
The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.
While none of the aforementioned productions entirely short shift the composer’s context, Ingmar Bergman‘s 1975 The Magic Flute remains the proverbial yardstick by which all other film versions are measured. This is due to the director’s spiritually sagacious cinematic and musical aesthetics (he was an accomplished organist and musicologist, which super-conductor Herbert von Karajan sensed when he enviously wrote Bergman on seeing the film: “You direct as if you were a musician. You have a feeling for the rhythm, the musicality and pitch.”)
Bergman had unsuccessfully tried for years to mount a production of “The Magic Flute,” finally getting his chance in 1975 with a television offer. He later said that making this film was the best experience of his career. His enthusiasm is contagious. Bergman worked with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the film fully gives the appearance of an actual live performance. It isn’t, and although the singers lip sync to their own prerecorded voices, few have complained about it in forty years. It is sung in Swedish instead of the usual German, but only the most constipated opera buffs (who may be among the bitchiest inhabitants of Earth) have objected.
“Real” movies of operas (the aforementioned Branagh production) employ actors to lip synch for the singers, which rarely works, because in opera, the drama is in the arias. From the outset, Bergman wanted young singers, as opposed to established opera stars or actors, feeling that this would convey a sensuous warmth and energy. His instincts proved astute. Heading the cast is Hakan Hagegard as the charming bird catcher Papageno. Josef Kostlinger is an ideal, square-jawed Tamino, and the aptly named Ulrik Cold exudes the right amount of perfected menace as the sorcerer Sarastro. Irma Uriila as Tamino’s object of affection, Pamina, alongside Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding as the Queen’s three ladies all capture the winsome quality of the composer’s characters. Elisabeth Erikson is the consummate Papagena (be prepared to utilize the repeat button for her duet with Papageno) and Birgit Nordin is a beautifully manipulative Queen of the Night.
Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist open on the “audience,” fluidly gliding over a sea of captivated faces, including Bergman’s young, cherubic daughter. Throughout the opera, Bergman repeatedly cuts away to her reaction (a few times too many). Still, rather than being a visual cue, prompting us to react likewise; we sense instead that she is participating in the dream with us.
With production design by Henny Normak (who also assisted Karen Erskine in costume design) and sets by Anna Lee-Hansen and Emilio Moliner, Bergman solves most of the problems with filmed opera. He emphasizes “The Magic Flute”‘s artificiality, wittily elevating us past the banality of hyperrealism. By utilizing the malleability of film as a medium, Bergman avoids the traps of limited action in the opera’s “real time,” employing inviting close-ups which, for once, are not gimmicky.
Admittedly, Shikaneder’s libretto is occasionally wayward. Bergman actually tightens the plot and quickens the pacing with his script, which parallels those Bergmanesque themes of human love as the authentic antidote to spiritual loneliness.
The result was overwhelming critical praise, which the late Pauline Kael summed up: “It is a blissful present, a model of how opera can be filmed.”