Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Magic Flute

By chance I came across Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute on DVD at the library the other day. I'd just been talking about it to a friend a few days before, not having seen it since it came out in 1975.

I watched it last night, and I can't say it's Bergman's greatest movie. But then, it was made for television, and doesn't have the feel of a 'real' Bergman movie as a result. Still, he doesn't just film a stage production, but gives the impression that he has, even though there are extreme close-ups and camera viewpoints out into the audience. And in the intermission there's a lovely moment when the singer playing Sarastro joins a little boy (playing a Moor) and they both look out through peep-holes in the curtain to see who's in the audience.

There are a couple of other moments when the 'stage' version approach is broken by having the camera invade the backstage where the singers are already into their characters, and playing them offstage as well as on.

But it's Mozart's music that makes the thing worth watching; again and again the delight of the music for this particular opera strikes home. It must surely be his most 'perfect' opera overall because of the wide variety of musical characterizations and the felicity of the accompaniment. (I'm sure others will vote for different operas; I vote for this one.)

When I say it's his most perfect opera, of course, I'm thinking of the music rather than the libretto, which is basically a fairy story that turns into a load of old tosh as it moves forward. All the super serious stuff that Sarastro and his brotherhood discuss tend to pull the story away from its basic fairy tale origins: prince and princess, bad witch, good uncle, a couple of low characters (Papageno and Papagena) and a Moor thrown in for good measure. The way the libretto goes it makes it almost a war between genders: bad mother, good father, with the kids caught in the middle. But that isn't worth worrying about; everything else is wonderful about it.

The man (Josef Köstlinger) who plays Tamino is a bit earnest (Tamino is a bit earnest, but he doesn't have to be played quite that way), but Håkan Hagegård as Papageno is a lot more fun, not just because his character is livelier anyway, but because he is obviously happier in front of the camera. (The Papageno/Papagena duet with a gradual disrobing of the winter gear - right down to shoes and socks, is a delight.) It appears that most of the cast are/were opera singers primarily, rather than actors, but Bergman gets good performances out of them in general.

The staging is full of fun moments: it appears at first to take place on a fairly small stage but Bergman expands it at will, while still keeping the scenery as painted backdrops and flats. Within that framework he produces some lovely effects however, winter turning into spring, stars appearing, the mechanical balloon with the three boys and so on. And then there's the stage dragon, and the various animals that appear when Tamino plays his magic flute.

My suspicion is that The Magic Flute is almost indestructible, and an artist of Bergman's calibre would be hard pressed to make a bad film out of it. He didn't.

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