Bergman’s Magic Flute (Trollflöjten)

Despite having seen many Magic Flutes and pretty much every Bergman movie it’s only now that I’ve got around to watching his famous film of the Mozart opera, or rather Bergman’s version of the opera, because it differs in important ways from Shikaneder’s libretto.  The basic concept is that Pamina is Sarastro’s daughter, who he has removed from the evil influence of her mother.  He intends Pamina to inherit his kingdom and leadership of the Brotherhood but only after he’s found a suitable chap to keep her out of trouble which is, of course, where Tamino comes in.  So whatever else has changed, the misogyny is intact.  There are other changes too.  Monostatos is almost written out of the script and a good deal of dialogue is changed or omitted, as are some musical numbers.  The whole thing comes in at 135 minutes so maybe 30 minutes of material have been cut.  None of this seems very radical today but must have raised a few eyebrows in 1975.

1.dragonThe structure of the film is a bit odd too.  It’s set up as a film of a stage performance, based on the original Vienna production, so very traditional looking.  But it’s not really a documentary of a stage production.  Despite some scenes with painted flats and the second campest dragon ever (only Opera Atelier’s outdoes it) and frequent cuts to the audience (which includes Bergman, cinematographer Sven Nykvist and, frequently focussed on, Bergman’s daughter).  At some points, for reasons I can’t fathom, placards with the words are placed at either top or bottom of the shot.  There’s even an Intermission scene with, inter alia, the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies smoking in from of a non smoking sign.  But, despite all this theatricality it remains visually very much a Bergman/Nykvist movie with shot composition very reminiscent of films like The Seventh Seal.

2.3 ladiesBergman assembled a remarkably good looking cast for this film.  So much so that I wondered if they were lip synching to other singers.  They aren’t, they are lip synching to themselves recorded in the studio.  It’s pretty good singing too.  The stand outs are Irma Urrila’s rather beautifully sung Pamina, Ulrik Cold’s rather avuncular Sarastro and Håkan Hagegård’s very fine Papageno.  Josef Köstlinger is an OK but rather anonymous Tamino. The weakest link is Birgit Nordin as the Queen of the Night.  Her voice sounds tired and metallic though it’s accurate and controlled in the coloratura.  Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding and Kirsten Vaupel are a bit of a bonus as the three ladies with fine singing and very good acting.  Everyone else is fine with some highly Bergmanesque acting in places, e.g. Papageno’s exasperated guardian in the temple.  Eric Ericsson conducts and can perhaps best be described as “unobtrusive”.  It’s all in Swedish, which sounds a bit odd at first but I found I soon got used to it.  Maybe this is because I’m rather used to watching films in Swedish.

3.papagenopaminaTechnically the DVD is pretty good.  The film was made for television but shot on 35mm colour stock.  The criterion Collection DVD is based on a very well restored print and the original stereo soundtrack so it looks and sounds about as good as a 1975 movie can though the picture is quite filmic and “soft”.  Being “made for television” the aspect ratio is 4:3.  There are no extras, no documentation (at least with my copy) and the only subtitle option is English.

4.qotnThis certainly isn’t the best Magic Flute on disk but it is interesting; perhaps more as an example of Bergman’s films than Mozart’s opera though.


8 thoughts on “Bergman’s Magic Flute (Trollflöjten)

  1. The Brecht is a big clue to all the oddities. Film is usually artificial. But a film that reminds us it’s a film, a performance? very new and ground-breaking for its decade. We’ve seen such things a whole lot since then.

    There’s also the matter of textual changes. Sarastro becomes Pamina’s dad, making this a very psychological telling of the tale (but hey it’s Bergman right? what did we expect). The last shot of Sarastro walking off with the flute is a stunning image. Notice too the there genii in their first appearance –during the quintet between the 3 ladies Tamino & Papageno–and tell me you haven’t seen that before: from Opera Atelier. Now of course Marshall did it long AFTER Ingmar had the idea. In Bergman it’s quite a bit different, the balloon coming down while the women are immobilized magically by some sort of net, giving us the first clue that the Queen & her hench-women might not be as nice as they seem.

    Have you checked out Julie Taymor’s version (that came via Met High Def)? The original broadcast is very edited, cut down hugely to make it kid-friendly.

  2. Ah, the Bergman “Flute”! So unique, so interesting, such a mixed bag, but such a classic. The main thing about it that annoys me is it’s popularity. Too many people label it the definitive “Flute” and too many non-operatic retellings of the story (e.g. P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel, Cameron Dokey’s YA novel “Sunlight and Shadow”) are based more on it than on the original libretto. Still, I love it. Few “Flutes” are as multifaceted. Some are “Flutes” mainly pretty and fairy-tale like, some are mainly folksy and funny, some are mainly solemn and Masonic, etc, but Bergman’s manages to be all of the above, just like Mozart’s music!

    • It does strike me very much as being more Bergman than Mozart or Shickaneder, though that’s not a bad thing. I’d be loathe to label any Zauberflöte as “definitive”. Like Don Giovanni, it can hold many meanings (and if Brigid Brophy is to be believed is a bit of an unresolved mash up of two different concepts) and none of them are definitive. I wonder which version I would recommend to someone who had never seen the piece before. My favourites are Audi, McVicar and Carsen but are any of those really “beginner” versions?

      • Yes, finding the perfect “Flute” for beginners is tough, because no two productions are alike and there really is no such thing as a “definitive” production. One of these days I’m going to re-watch every version I can get my hands on (probably a several-week- or month-long project) and decide which ones I think are the best to start with.

  3. Agreed and it’s refreshing to read someone not hyper-attached to traditionalism, which really is the death of a great art form. There’s a reason opera thrives, even with the young, in Europe.

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