DVD Review Of The Magic Flute

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/14/08


  Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film/tv version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten) is a serviceable film, and nothing that really takes advantage of either of its media- opera and film, to its fullest; although it begs the question as to why it was ever made? It is basically a filmed version of the play (although the singing was recorded beforehand and looped in to the film, thus allowing the actors to emote without worrying of their singing)- replete with shots of a gawking audience, but very little new is added to the tale. Yes, it’s sung in Swedish, and there are a few minor changes, such as the sorcerer Sarastro being Pamina’s father- which adds a tinge of Bergmanian and Freudian angst to the opera, and a few scenes being reordered, but overall it’s the same familiar tale.

  While watching it I wondered what such a film of Swan Lake, by Federico Fellini, would have been like. Doubtless, it would have been more over the top than this production, but that fact only reinforces my query as to why film this opera the way it is filmed? Yes, Bergman is almost as famed as a stage director as he is a film director, and there are some scenes of ‘backstage’ antics- especially during a several minute long Intermission, where the actor playing Sarastro, Ulrik Cold- his real name, is shown reading the score of another opera, Parsifal, and another actor is reading a Donald Duck comic book, but the tale itself is rather straightforward, and at two hours and fifteen minutes, a bit too long, even if abridged from the over three hours of the opera; although one can go to the bathroom and not miss much of what is going on.

  The Queen of Night’s daughter, Pamina (Irma Urrila)- a soprano, has been kidnapped by Sarastro- a bass, and she sends Prince Tamino (Josef Köstlinger)- a tenor, and Papageno (Håkan Hagegård)- a Pan pipe playing baritone with a fetish for aves, to rescue her, after they have been seduced by three pretty ladies (Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding), who killed the dragon pursuing Tamino because they lust for him. It is really part of the Queen’s plot to usurp Sarastro’s kingdom, but the duo do not know that. Merely seeing Pamina’s grace in a locket sends Tamino into ecstasies of love, but he is watched over by three guardian angel boys, of a sort, in a hot air balloon (Urban Malmberg, Ansgar Krook, and Erland Von Heijne). He and Papageno are caught, and set through three trials. They pass, and Tamino wins Pamina’s love, while Papageno gets his own mortal love, Papagena (Elisabeth Erikson)- a soprano, the Queen of Night (Birgit Nordin)- a soprano, and her spy in Sarastro’s camp, Monostatos (Ragnar Ulfung)- a tenor sometimes in blackface, and sometimes not, as the Shakespearean Othello/Caliban device, get their comeuppance. There is the requisite touch of melodrama- misunderstandings, attempted suicides, but all done with cheerful songs, written by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, and attractive cast members who can sing well. The film and opera was not shot in a real playhouse, but in a film studio at the Swedish Film Institute made up to look like Stockholm’s Drottningholm Theatre, but is intriguingly lit by Bergman’s great cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Rather than the dour and dark hues most operas indulge in, this one has a far greater range of colors and shades in its palette.

  Dramatically, there are some oddities in the film- such as the singers holding up Swedish language placards at various points- to a Swedish audience, which only underscores what is going on- a bit too didactic a touch, as well as too often repeated shots of audience reactions- filled with Bergman associates, like Nykvist and actors Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Oddest of all is Bergman’s seeming fixation with one soporific little red haired girl, listed in film credits online as Helene Friberg, who looks eerily like current actress Amber Tamblyn. Whether or not this girl was caught in the act of watching (and stifling yawns), or a plant- likely since her name is known, I do not know, but since she is impassive through all but two of her close-ups, what is the point of featuring her? To be fair, though, none of the other audience members shown are full of zest either, which suggests that this seemed, to them, a rather mundane performance of the opera. Also, because it is filmed, we get close-ups of the actors that we really should not see- such as the rotted brown tooth of Håkan Hagegård, as Papageno. Incidentally, if the little girl in the audience looks like Amber Tamblyn, the plump Hagegård looks like chubby actor Sean Astin, from the Lord Of The Rings films, and Ulrik Cold, as Sarastro, is a dead ringer for a young Orson Welles, especially around the eyes, nose, and lips.

  Yet, since the titular Magic Flute is only glimpsed when given to Tamino by the Queen, in Act One, and when used at the end of the opera to guide the lovers through their final ‘test,’ which bizarrely includes mute and naked orgiasts, it begs the question of why the opera bears the title it does. There are a few spoken passages- in prose, not verse, but it is rather mundane. The DVD by The Criterion Collection has no extra features, save for white subtitles in English, one of the few times that subtitling actually benefits a viewer, for who ever really understands what an opera’s lyrics are saying? That said, the subtitles do disappear several times during the film for a minute or more, without any explanation or rationale.

  Overall, however, The Magic Flute succeeds as a film not because of Bergman’s considerable skills in his art form, nor the acting skills of his cast, but because of their singing skills, and the music of Mozart. That one great artist, at his height, can aid another great artist, at less than his height, is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does make for a rather average viewing experience, something quite rare when that artist is named Ingmar Bergman.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]


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