Ingmar Bergman and opera have a reputation for super-seriousness and are therefore ripe for parody. Whenever Saturday Night Live or some other outfit needs to poke fun at art films, there are almost invariably black-and-white dour-faced Swedes posturing about and I’ve seen enough fat ladies in horns skewered in popular culture to know that for many people that’s what opera is. Both entities have partially earned their reputations. Anyone who has seen Persona or Götterdämmerung knows that those two works don’t have a lot of room for flippancy, but Bergman directed a number of light comedies and an opera-goer can see any number of pieces that don’t take themselves too seriously, provided that the name Wagner or Strauss doesn’t appear above the title. So when the director of the Silence of God trilogy decided to adapt an opera for the screen, what did he choose? The obsessed melodrama La Traviata? The overwhelming Parsifal? The somber Peter Grimes? Or a piece from his own country, a piece with a Bergman-ready title like The Doomsday Prophets? With all of opera seria at his disposal, he chose Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a musical confection about dragons, puppy love, and enchanted instruments and he made it as light and bubbly as the music itself.
What attracted Bergman to Mozart’s light fantasy? He had already betrayed an admiration for the material seven years before he directed it in full. In 1968’s energetic Hour of the Wolf there is a stunning sequence where a man performs a scene from The Magic Flute as a puppet show, except the puppet is a real man. A character describes the score as the “most beautiful, the most shattering music ever written,” “a naive text, in short a commission, and yet the highest manifestation of art.” Whether or not Bergman believed that I cannot say, but he wrote the words and must have been familiar with the piece. And it does include a suicide attempt so Bergman could make his quota.
The story is fairly inconsequential. Tamino, sung here by Josef Köstlinger, is accompanied on his journey to wisdom and true love by the goofy birdwatcher Papageno (Håkan Hagegård). Tamino is off to rescue the princess Pamina (Irma Urrila) from the clutches of her mother, the wicked Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin), and her doting henchman Monostasos (Ragnar Ulfung). He is guided by the keeper of wisdom Sarastro (Ulrik Cold), who, in Bergman’s version, is Pamina’s father. Bergman made a number of other changes, most notably removing the Egyptian elements and settling for a more universal locale.
As in the best film adaptations of operas, Bergman skews the line between realism and stagecraft. For much of The Magic Flute we are clearly on a stage, with wooden background and even a visible backstage; other times we are taken to actual dingy dungeons and imposing forests but never do we forget that we are watching a piece of theater. During Mozart’s remarkable overture, Bergman, the director of faces, gives us dozens of them, all watching the stage, transfixed and smiling. Throughout the movie, Bergman returns to the face of one audience member, a little girl, who reacts to the action. In another Bergman movie, she might represent innocence or stand as the paragon of chastity, but here I believe she’s simply enjoying the fantasy before her.
And Bergman’s staging is immaculate with large puppet animals, fantastic sets and props. He makes no apologies for the loss of realism; it is not his intention to bring the story to life as much as to capture an inventive stage version. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t cinematic; it follows basic film language of close-ups and composition. We are also treated to things the audience in a theater wouldn’t be privy to like a performer in a dressing room rushing out to make a cue. The intermission sequence is brilliant and gives us a backstage look at the performers. Tamino plays chess with Pamina; the Queen of the Night and her ladies share cigarettes (directly under signs that forbid smoking); the businesslike Sarastro uses the break to study the score of Parsifal, perhaps anticipating a less silly production, while a young chorus member reads a comic book.
The most significant achievement of The Magic Flute is Bergman’s ability to put across how much fun everyone’s having. The opera is a light piece, it has moments of sadness and import and there’s that “shattering” music Bergman described, but what sticks with you is the breathless delight of all of it. The rollicking overture, the goofiness of the situations, even the Queen of the Night’s threatening aria is more campy theatrics than actual menace. And then there’s Papageno, Mozart’s clownish creation, the key to any good Magic Flute and in Hagegård, Bergman has a winner. His doughy appearance and goofy grin provide the perfect look for the character’s simple reactionary extremes: fear, joy, despair, love. When Papageno finally meets his Papagena (Elisabeth Erikson), their “Pa- pa- pa-” duet in the snow is one of the sweetest, most happy moments in all movies, and from a man known for his harsh hopelessness. The finale is another inspired melding of cinema and stage as Bergman provides the Queen and Monostatos with a fearsome army too big for any real theater. As the characters sing their final paeans to wisdom and light we see that we are clearly in a theater, but Bergman gives us something we can’t provide with our eyes: he zooms out, giving us a look at the entire stage and proscenium as the curtain comes down.
The list of great movie adaptations of operas is not very long; the two mediums aren’t particularly suited for each other, but The Magic Flute seems to be rather durable for celluloid, with Bergman’s version and the excellent Kenneth Branagh’s completely cinematic version, set during World War I. The job of the director of an opera film is to replicate the feeling of seeing the same show in the theater (a directive the Metropolitan Opera’s mostly laudable “Live in HD” productions too often miss) while making it truly a movie-going experience. The Magic Flute is a bedtime story, a work who’s defining characteristic is cheer, and I’ve never seen a version of The Magic Flute more cheerful than Bergman’s.