The Compleat Ingmar #28: The Magic Flute (1975)

In 1975, Ingmar Bergman directed a production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Swedish television (which was later given a cinema release). I had seen Mozart’s opera before, at the theatre, but that was about 35 years ago. I don’t remember much, other than the relatively sexy outfits the Three Ladies were wearing (or at least what I considered sexy at the age of 11). Having watched Bergman’s screen version, though, I can safely say that The Magic Flute is weird.

Well, I say weird. ‘Nonsensical’ might be a better description of the opera’s plot – to me, it comes across as how a six-year-old might summarise the fairytale they’d just seen on TV, falling asleep halfway through and not noticing that another story had begun in the meantime. It also suffers from a main character that is dull, in more than just one sense. I’m sure that experts on Mozart and/or opera get a lot from The Magic Flute (the German Wikipedia page borders on the epic), but sadly, I’m relatively ignorant when it comes to the art form. I like much of the music, certainly, but on the whole I think I might derive more pleasure from an opera that has a more coherent storyline.

Which isn’t to say that a production of The Magic Flute can’t be enjoyable for an opera ignoramus like me, and Bergman’s production has a lot of charm. More than that, though, having seen it I can say that it fits remarkably well at the point where it’s been put in Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. Following The Rite and The Magician, Bergman’s staging of the opera continues those films’ spotlight on theatre and theatricality. In fact, the director finds witty ways of staging The Magic Flute that are entirely of the theatre yet impossible to do in any other medium than film.

To begin with, Bergman’s adaptation is set in a theatre with decidedly baroque stylings, and the audience is as much the subject of the film as the opera singers. We are shown an audience that, for 1975 Sweden, looks surprisingly diverse, in terms of age, looks, ethnicity. And we’re introduced to a young girl who will come to be something of a stand-in for the audience watching the film at home or at the cinema.

As the stage for the screen adaptation includes the auditorium, it also extends into the backstage area and the dressing rooms: when Papageno is introduced, we first see him – or is it the actor? the film both highlights the artifice and blurs the boundaries between the world of the theatre and the world it depicts – woken from a nap by his musical cue and racing to make it on stage in time to play his iconic notes. Similarly, during the halftime intermission we catch glimpses of the Queen of the Night – or Birgit Nordin, the singer playing her – smoking a cigarette and ignoring the “Smoking prohibited” sign right next to her as a queen would, or we come upon Sarastro reading Parcival, while next to him one of the child actors reads the latest issue of Donald Duck with the same intense concentration.

This blurring of lines features throughout the film, so that what we see – the stage, the actors, the effects – works on more than one level. Accordingly, the instances of magic in the play never hide the illusion: they are often beautiful but they’re reminiscent of Tony Kushner’s stage direction in Angels in America calling for “a theatrical kind of magic, with the wires showing – but magic nonetheless.” At the same time, all of this is mixed with cinematography that is in no way a replication of stagecraft, and special effects (such as snowfall) that are too elaborate and realistic to be replicated on the stage – but it is never a competition between theatre and film. Bergman uses the magic that either medium has to offer and weaves a spell from their combination.

At its best, Bergman’s The Magic Flute manages to be both knowing and naive, to both show the wires and still make us believe in the magic. There is a childlike playfulness that suits the silliness of the material, but there is also a more adult playfulness around the edges that may well go over the heads of the children in the audience and that the little girl we return to frequently probably didn’t get at the time. I don’t think I particularly like the material Bergman is adapting – at least not in its entirety, since obviously I’m not immune to the magic Mozart wrought with his music. It is often incoherent and not rarely sexist and racist in ways that are quite offputting. Nonetheless I enjoy seeing this more playful side of the director. Bergman may have held some cynicism when it comes to theatre, stage actors and their position in society, as is also hinted at in Tinsel and Sawdust, but there seems to be a different side to Bergman that is brought out by this adaptation. In The Magic Flute his love for theatre is plain to see.

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