Monday, August 7, 2017

‘Bergman’s Magic Flute: beauty, intelligence, wit, and fun’

Courtesy Sveriges Radio

The Metropolitan Opera and the Film Society of Lincoln Center will co-host an outdoor screening of Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of The Magic Flute on Friday, August 25. From the publicity:

The ninth Summer HD Festival features nine thrilling performances from the Met’s Live in HD series of cinema transmissions—plus a special pre-festival screening of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1975 film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a co-presentation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The festival runs from August 26 through September 4, with more than 3,000 seats set up in front of the opera house each night, as well as additional standing room around Lincoln Center Plaza.

Friday, August 25, 8 p.m.
The Magic Flute

Courtesy Sveriges Radio

Director Ingmar Bergman was a lifelong fan of Mozart’s late operatic masterpiece Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), having seen the work as a young boy. He went on to create a cinematic version of the opera, sung in his native Swedish, which blends 18th century stagecraft with fairy-tale adventure. For the film, maestro Eric Ericson conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a cast that included a number of young Scandinavian artists, most notably baritone Håkan Hagegård—who sang nearly 90 performances for Met audiences—as the charming bird catcher Papageno.

Approximate running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times of November 12, 1975:

By Vincent Canby

It’s grand opera. It’s a Freemasonry fable. It was made for Swedish television and reportedly cost about $650,000, which would barely cover the expenses of a Hollywood motorcycle movie. It’s based on a work with a magnificent score but with a libretto whose second act seems to have forgotten how the first act started.

Yet Ingmar Bergman’s screen version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened at the Coronet yesterday, is an absolutely dazzling film entertainment, so full of beauty, intelligence, wit, and fun that it becomes a testimonial not only to man’s possibilities but also to his high spirits.

All of the best Bergman films have been about some aspect of love (often its absence), but The Magic Flute is virtually an act of it.

It is, first and foremost, Mr. Bergman’s exuberant tribute to Mozart’s genius, with full, amused recognition of the inconsistencies in the Schikaneder libretto. Mr. Bergman hasn’t set out to interpret The Magic Flute but rather to present it as it originally was, bursting with the life of an exquisite stage production as it would look within the physical limitations of an eighteenth-century court theater.

This approach recalls the Laurence Olivier production of Henry V, though there are marked differences. The Bergman Flute begins as if it were simply the record of a single performance of the opera on a golden summer evening in a theater set in a royal park. During the overture the camera scans the faces in the contemporary audience, all of whose members, with several obvious exceptions, look exceptionally, particularly Swedish. The recurring expression of the film itself is that of an enraptured little girl (said to be the director’s daughter) as she watches the opera unfold.

As the overture ends and the curtain goes up, the camera slides over the footlights into a magical world of painted backdrops and other eighteenth-century stage conventions. Unlike the Olivier Henry V, the Bergman Flute never moves through the painted backdrops into a realistic world beyond. Though the film, after having established its stage conventions, enlarges upon them and, once or twice, abandons them when it suits the director’s purpose, the Bergman production is virtually a hymn in praise of theatricality and the efficacy of art.

At the opera’s intermission, the camera catches Tamino and Pamina, the opera’s two young lovers, playing chess in a dressing room, while the evil Queen of the Night smokes languidly under a backstage No Smoking sign. Mr. Bergman, who loves Mozart and the theater, has special fondness for the performers who work so hard for our joy.

The Magic Flute was first performed in a theater near Vienna on September 30, 1791, just a few weeks before Mozart died. Though Don Giovanni is the grandest of Mozart’s operas, The Magic Flute is the more ideally romantic, the work of a man who, while dying, was able to compose the kind of profoundly lyrical and witty music that almost convinces a lot of people—including me—that opera should begin and end with Mozart.

Mr. Bergman treats the odd Schikaneder libretto fairly straight, neither apologizing for it nor patronizing it. Tamino, the young prince who, in the first scene, is charged by the Queen of the Night with the rescue of her daughter from the wicked sorcerer, Sarastro, winds up by becoming a member of Sarastro’s mystical priesthood, the members of which are the protectors of truth, beauty, and wisdom. Somewhere near the end of the first act, the Queen of the Night has become the villainess of the piece, and The Magic Flute has turned into what was, in its day, quite bold propaganda for Freemasonry.

I hesitate to say even this much about the story of The Magic Flute since it gives no indication of the opera’s phenomenal beauty and good humor. Reduced to its showbiz essentials, it’s about the triumph of the perfect love of Tamino and Pamina, the daughter of the vengeful Queen of the Night, with the help of a little magic and a lot of steadfastness of purpose.

The aural quality of the production is superb. Mr. Bergman recorded the music before he began shooting the film, thus allowing the actors to lip-synch the lyrics (which are in Swedish, not German) instead of belting them out on-camera. The system works beautifully because of technological magic I don’t understand and because the actors are lip-synching their own voices.

He has also found singers who both look and sound right, including his Tamino (Josef Kšstlinger), who resembles a prince in a Maxfield Parrish mural, and a beautiful Pamina (Irma Urrila), who looks like a young Liv Ullman. He is especially fortunate, too, in his choice of a Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) who manages to be simultaneously robust and comic without ever being opera-silly.

The film is full of memorable moments, some moving, as in the first-act Pamina-Papageno duet, and some gravely funny, as when three little boys in a festively decorated eighteenth-century balloon caution Tamino to be steadfast, silent, and wise, which are probably the three things that any three little boys you or I know would find most difficult to do. The camera, in close-up, never misses a gesture.

Make no mistake: This Magic Flute is no uneasy cross-breed of art forms. It’s a triumphant film in its own right.


Directed by Ingmar Bergman; written (in Swedish, with English subtitles) by Mr. Bergman, based on the opera Die Zauberflšte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder; cinematographer, Sven Nykvist; edited by Siv Lundgren; music by Mozart; production designer, Henny Noremark; produced by Mans Reutersward; released by Svergies Radio/TV2. Running time: 135 minutes.

With: Ulrik Gold (Sarastro), Josef Kšstlinger (Tamino), Erik Saedén (Speaker), Birgit Nordin (Queen of the Night), Irma Urrila (Pamina), Håkan Hagegård (Papageno), and Elisabeth Erikson (Papagena).

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