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.
The 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.
Bergman 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.
Technically 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.