• The Magic Flute

    By Peter Cowie

    Twenty-five years after its first appearance, Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute remains the finest screen version of an opera ever produced. Shot in sumptuous color by Sven Nykvist, and featuring some of the finest Nordic singers of the day, the film marks Bergman’s overt tribute to classical music. An accomplished organist, and a musicologist with impressive knowledge of the Bach canon, Bergman once declared that had he not become a film director he might have turned to conducting.

    The aim of the enterprise was to create an intimate, joyful Flute and to evoke the original 1791 production at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. Bergman wanted to shoot the film inside the celebrated Drottningholm Palace (in a royal park on the outskirts of Stockholm), but the scenery was considered too fragile to accommodate a film crew. So the stage—complete with wings, curtains, and wind machines—was painstakingly copied and erected in the studios of the Swedish Film Institute, under the direction of Henny Noremark.

    Rumor has it that Schikaneder (who wrote the libretto and effectively produced the opera for Mozart) spent 6,000 florins on costumes and scenery for his premiere. Noremark and his colleagues painted each prop and backdrop in the same tone and shade as it would have been in the time of Mozart. Bergman claims that Mozart wrote his score with a specific stage in mind (around 22 feet wide, if we follow the music when Tamino goes across the stage to the Temple of Wisdom).

    While these preparations were in hand, Bergman worked with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, recording the musical score in an old circus building. Bergman insisted on the “playback” method, whereby all the music is prerecorded by the artists and orchestra, then replayed in segments in the film studio until the director is satisfied with both lip synchronization and acting performance. Ericson and Bergman paid meticulous attention to the tempi, phrasing, and dynamics of the recording, to ensure that the first-ever stereo soundtrack for a TV production would be well-nigh perfect.

    In most filmed opera, lip movements match the words on the track, but the spatial dimension is false. In this one, however, the voices emanate from exactly the right positions on set, creating a three-dimensional space that draws the audience directly into the drama.

    The sound effects might have been designed with DVD technology in mind. Atmospheric details such as footsteps approaching across the stage, Papageno’s chewing of cakes as he shows Pamina the picture of her prince, and the sly, lecherous whispers of Monostatos (sung by Ragnar Ulfung, well-known to Met audiences in the ‘70s), all contribute to the vivid impression of the Bergman/Ericson recording. The single most arresting moment comes when Monostatos suddenly hisses “Nu stilla, stilla, stilla, stilla!” from the left-hand speaker, and the Queen of the Night, skirts rustling ominously, advances.

    Produced on a modest budget of only $650,000, The Magic Flute aired on New Year’s Day, 1975, to mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of Swedish Radio.

    When does an opera become a film? Certainly in Act Two, when the Queen of the Night, her face transformed into a mask of fury by waxen make-up and a livid green filter, harangues Pamina in “Der Hölle rache.” And certainly in the climactic sequence when Monostatos and his threatening minions surge towards the camera. Despite such frissons, and for all the inevitable skulls that mock the hapless Papageno in the House of Trials, this is a witty, rambunctious Flute, performed at a quick pace throughout.

    As Papageno and Papagena frolic with their children in the final shot, one is left in no doubt as to the meaning of the opera in Bergman’s eyes. Like his own best films, it embodies a quest, and Sarastro, so often a grave and somber figure, is seen by Bergman as the paternal source of that exalted love sought in their different ways by Tamino and Papageno.

    If this closing scene marks the apotheosis of human love, then the nadir of man’s spiritual loneliness is symbolized in those 12 measures in Act One when Tamino exclaims, “Oh endless night, when will you ever lighten? When will the darkness ever brighten?” and hears the ghostly response of the priests: “Soon—or never.”

    When Bergman stages a play, one performance differs from another in duration by only a few seconds. This precision stamps his production of The Magic Flute, from the opening chords of the Overture. Resisting the temptation to use shots of sunsets and verdant landscapes, as André Previn used to do when conducting Rachmaninoff on TV, Bergman cuts from one face to another in the stage audience. This swift cutting fulfills two purposes: it establishes the essentially quick tempi that Bergman believes to be part of the opera’s character, and it emphasizes the various “sorts and conditions of men” to whom Mozart was addressing his music.

    As Ericson whips up the orchestra towards the end of the Overture, the cutting accelerates, with one small girl’s cherubic face reappearing again and again. During the very opera itself, Bergman occasionally cuts back to her smiling features as if reminding us that The Magic Flute is a fairy tale whose “childish magic and exalted mystery” can appeal to spectators of all ages. Mozart’s magic has been neither betrayed nor merely reproduced by Bergman, but rather filtered through the Swedish maestro’s own metaphysical vision in a remarkable act of homage.

    Peter Cowie is the author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography (Limelight), and the editor of the annual International Film Guide. He is International Publishing Director of Variety.

3 comments

  • By hp
    July 12, 2013
    09:59 PM

    Would be a great introduction for kids--the spectacle and intimacy alone.
    Reply
  • By Fikon
    August 19, 2013
    01:04 PM

    Saw the original Swedish broadcast as a wide-eyed seven-year-old. My first opera experience and my first Bergman. Wonderful stuff. But, it's now the second half of 2013 - why no Blu-ray release?
    Reply
  • By John Plotz
    December 08, 2013
    05:58 PM

    I just watched the DVD of the Julie Taymor/James Levine production at the Metropolitan Opera. I don't mean to disparage either of them -- but the Bergman production was better in almost all respects. Maybe the most striking difference is that the Metropolitan Opera stage is huge -- 90 feet deep and 103 feet wide, according to Wikipedia. The characters are tiny little figures in front of an audience of 3800+. Bergman's charming production is cosy, intimate, and altogether more. . . relaxing. . . That's not the word I'm looking for. . . maybe friendly. Also, the Met version is mainly dark in color -- the Bergman light. So much more cheerful. Anyway. . .
    Reply