The Magic Flute

The re-release of The Magic Flute, part of the BFI’s Ingmar Bergman centenary celebrations, is a joy and a delight. Filmed for Swedish television in 1975, the film soon gained international critical acclaim. Since then, it has become regular festive television fare. It is wonderful to see it again on the big screen.

Mozart’s opera is probably best remembered for its duets, repeated motif of a chirrupping flute, and cascading peals of glockenspiel. There’s love, in its many guises: romantic, lustful, embittered and disenchanted. In counterpoint, high drama, darkness and treachery wreak havoc. Steadfast love eventually triumphs. It’s a gorgeous story. The music is ineffably delightful.

The film’s opening sets the context of the opera: it is about to be performed to a modern audience. Bergman shows close-ups of spectators’ face, waiting expectantly for the opera to start. Sometimes, the camera cuts to the woods around the theatre, adding to the atmosphere, and showing the day’s dying light. The sound of audiences slowly filling the auditorium is clearly audible. This adds to the atmosphere. A few recognisable faces appear – regular Bergman actor Erland Josephson, Bergman himself, his wife Ingrid Bergman, cinematographer Sven Kykvist. It’s very obviously a 1970s audience. It places the film in a specific time period, but only for a moment. What is seen on stage quickly becomes timeless.

Bergman set The Magic Flute in a replica of the 18th century Drottningholm Court Theatre in Stockholm. It’s an ancient, wooden, baroque structure, which adds to the sense of magic. The replica was built for the film, as the original theatre was too fragile, and its size and set-up would not accommodate the production. The set design, too, adds to the baroque aspect of the work, with flat, hand-painted scenery, and delightfully makeshift props such as two-dimensional hot air balloons. The antiquated touches allude to fairy tale theatre – it is very close to an old school panto, though, most of the time, rather more sober.

The location and the intentional sense of theatricality provide a sense of being transported to another world and another time, while still retaining a sense of the here and now. Bergman includes sequences filmed during the interval, of the performers at rest, backstage. While the singers are temporarily off-stage, they are still in character, ensconced within the world of the story. Their actions during the interval mirror their characters, in a minor key. The Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin), for example, smokes near a ‘no smoking’ sign, and gazes coldly at something far away. There is a sense of fun, to all this.

Mozart had written the opera with his singers’ abilities and voices in mind – some of the parts, like the Queen of the Night, require considerable technical skills as well as exceptional vocal range. Bergman cast singers rather than actors, recording the songs prior to filming. The performers then mimed to music, without having to project as powerfully as they would on the stage – the lip-sync making for much more naturalistic performances. The singers are beautifully cast, their facial features giving an insight into the characters. The Queen of the Night’s cuts a powerful, menacing figure, while being both murderously manipulative and a forlorn mother. Her singing is entrancing.

The Magic Flute is an exotic tale from an 18th century Vienna placed just on the frontier of the East. The city was on the frontline of long-running stand-offs with the Ottoman Empire, and by Mozart’s time the Battle of Vienna was still a vivid memory (the legacy since then has been croissants – those crescent-shaped pastries the French call viennoiseries in honour of its origins).

The opera is adorned with references to the mysterious, the faraway, and also, charmingly, the rustic. There are delightful scenes in woods which can only be described as archetypally Swedish. The opera is sung in Swedish too, rather than German, and this adds to its distinctiveness.

The tale is surreal, menacing, and comic in turn. Prince Tamino, played by Josef Köstlinger – exceptionally handsome and slightly stilted in the manner of heroes from stories long past, has just been saved by mysterious Ladies. They are the Ladies of the Queen of the Night. They enchant him, and show him an image of Pamina (Irma Urrila), the Queen’s daughter. He instantly falls in love.

Pamina is held prisoner by Sarastro (Ulrik Gold), the High Priest of Isis and Osiris. Monostatos (Ragnar Ulfung), Sarastro’s henchman – or so it seems – has designs on her. The Queen of the Night asks Tamino to save her daughter. Smitten, he is only too happy to oblige. Papageno (Håkan Hagegård), a jovial and innocent birdcatcher, accompanies him on his mission.

Along the way, three cherubs proffer sage advice – the kind they would probably ignore if it were given them. It is both endearing and sweetly funny.

Tamino finds out that he has been duped by the Queen. When he meets Sarastro and his priests, he finds himself persuaded she is evil. Sarastro, he learns, is not a tyrant, but the defender of reason, nature and wisdom.

Pamina is revealed to be Sarastro’s daughter as well as the Queen’s. This little twist in the tale is not in the original libretto; it’s a neat tying up of loose ends devised by Bergman. It also gives greater emotional amplitude to the story. The Magic Flute’s libretto is an 18th century text which is rather harsh on women, and some of the lines, to modern ears, jar. Perhaps they jarred too, when first performed, despite the opera being a runaway success in its own time.

This is mitigated by the benevolence, charm, and comedy deployed in recounting the love story of Papageno and Papagena: after pining sweetly for a beloved, to the point of despair, Papageno’s perfect match finally appears (Elisabeth Eriksson). There is a promise of happy, cheerful, carefree love ahead – and of a chirpy brood.

The BFI’s Bergman centenary season has been a treat. Its scope has also allowed audiences to develop a richer perspective on Bergman than ever before, to be reminded of his perspicacity, and also of the warmth, fun and joy which remain part of his life’s work.

135 min, Colour (Sweden)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Original libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder; Swedish version Alf Henriksson
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
Art Director: Henny Noremark
Based on Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute
Cast: Ulrik Gold, Ragnar Ulfung, Josef Köstlinger, Erik Saedén, Birgit Nordin, Irma Urrila, Håkan Hagegård, Elisabeth Eriksson.

Originally published on MyFilmClub