“Somehow he [Mozart] managed to make this preposterous bit of humbug the most profound of all his operas….In the most dazzling feat of his career, Mozart turned the libretto’s creaking assemblage of claptrap, platitudes, and misogyny into a sublime fairy tale for adults.”
—from Jan Swafford’s commentary on The Magic Flute in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music
What Mozart did with the dubious lyrics of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, head of a traveling company of players better known for their extravagant productions of popular comedies, director Ingmar Bergman did when he brought The Magic Flute to the screen in 1975. It remains one of the best translations of opera to film ever realized.
Do you actually have to be an operaphile or, dare we say it, a balcony potato, to enjoy this movie? Nein! I speak as one who still sees opera as consisting primarily of very large men and women over-emoting to magnificent music and inevitably dying in the most prolonged and redundant manner possible. And 20 years ago, when I first saw Bergman’s The Magic Flute in a Selkirk College classroom, my only experience of opera had been as a random squawk on the radio dial as I tuned in rock’n roll from Spokane. Like all great films, Bergman’s tribute to music opened up my eyes, my ears, and my imagination. It left an indelible impression of joy.
The Magic Flute was one of the last pieces Mozart wrote before his death several months later, on December 5th, 1791. It was also his last great success before he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, a victim of illness and debt and despair. It was said that from his sickbed he would time the 14 scenes of his opera as he imagined them being played out simultaneously on the Viennese stage. One night the recently much-reviled Salieri took Mozart to the actual production, where they contributed enthusiastically to the wild applause. . . ‘
It is possible to see in the story and music of The Magic Flute a portrait of Mozart himself. First as Prince Tamino, the unwitting, questing hero whose search for love leads him towards the Eternal. Next, as Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick, a randy buffoon who looks for nothing beyond the next glass of wine, the next pretty girl, and a brace of kleine Kinderlein. Finally, as the high priest-ruler Sarastro, head of a mystical Brotherhood seeking nothing less than the moral regeneration of humanity.
I have to admit that I prefer the buffoon. The Magic Flute without Papageno would be like Shakespeare’s plays without his fools and clowns. Bergman gives Papageno his full due several times over. He’s made a very clever translation of the German text into Swedish (and an equally clever translation into English subtitles). He recreates the extravagant mechanical staging of Mozart’s time, with its marvelously shifting sets, Jules Veme-ish angel sprites, and outrageous menagerie of dragons, bears, and walruses(!!). With occasional backstage glimpses, the audience is welcomed to share the physical joy of production. In true Papageno style, the opera’s moral messages are printed out on flashcards held by the performers as they sing the lines (“The radiant sun overpowers the night/And darkness surrenders to wisdom and light”). Princess Pamina’s suicide attempt is cut short by a shower of snowballs.
I’m captivated by the silly; others by the sublime. There are two stunning coloratura arias by the very wicked Queen of the Night; grandiose religious passages from Sarastro; romantic Lieder from Prince Tamino; and Bach-like choral fantasies for the final scenes of trial by water and fire. Wagner loved The Magic Flute and called it the first true German opera. Hegel and Goethe were both awed. George Bernard Shaw said that Sarastro’s arias are the only music he knew that could be put in the mouth of God. Critics acknowledge it as the masterpiece of “Singspiel,” a popular type of stage work somewhat like an American musical—songs linked with spoken dialogue. And Mozart himself wanted much more than a simple fairy tale or pantomime for adults. The Magic Flute was to be comedic opera with a metaphysical clout.
Mozart had joined a Freemason lodge in 1784. This was at a time when the Catholic church in Austria saw Masonry as a diabolical conspiracy, soon to be seconded by the secular authorities. Along with such figures as Voltaire, Goethe, and Benjamin Franklin, Mozart found in Masonry an ideal of human brotherhood. He wrote music for Masonic ceremonies and, in The Magic Flute, wove in a symbolic subtext where Prince Tamino wins both the princess and entrance into a mystical confraternity. Even the three great chords for full orchestra which begin the Overture are supposed to have hidden Masonic meaning.
Often disconcerted by the shifting tones—from exalted to vulgar—many viewers also find themselves confused by the role of the Queen of the Night. After she saves Prince Tamino from the dragon, she seems the distressed noblewoman in need of a hero; her daughter has been abducted by Sarastro, whom she portrays as a despot. Meeting Sarastro’s depraved servant (yet another wicked Moor), we’re sure she’s right. But shortly after, we learn that the Queen’s motives are utterly selfish and she’s nothing more than a vengeful harridan and Sarastro is revealed as the incarnation of hieratic wisdom. Very politically incorrect. In real life, what had happened was that Schikaneder and Mozart had begun with a previously-published story and were halfway through the opera when a rival company staged another, hugely successful, version of the same story. No problem. Schikaneder changed the heroes into villains in midstream, and Mozart developed the allegory of Freemasonry.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Mozart’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute is often described as the finest screen version of an opera ever produced. Beautiful music, beautiful people. The singers may not be quite to the level of the greatest recordings of this opera, but no one should be complaining. Bergman’s main concession to cinema with this production is the time he devotes to close-ups of his actors and individual audience members. The men are handsome, the women sensual & stunning, and the camera lingers on a young woman (Bergman’s daughter?) in the audience who’s captivated by Mozart’s fantasia on love and Freemasonry. The film was made for Swedish TV, in front of a live audience. The staging concedes almost nothing to cinema, being the old-fashioned kind of theatrical spectacle with multitudinous wings and backdrops and every mechanical wonder that simple ropes & pulleys can allow.
The Magic Flute is its own splendid little universe. Mozart put everything he knew into this comic opera, from simple folk songs to stunning arias to romantic Lieder. He and his somewhat shady impresario, Emanuel Schikander, threw in pseudo-Egyptian exoticism, Masonic ritual, burlesque, and low comedy. Jan Swafford, in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, wrote, “In the most dazzling feat of his career, Mozart turned the libretto’s creaking assemblage of claptrap, platitudes, and misogyny into a sublime fairy tale for adults. It moves effortlessly from the artless and popular to the searching and profound.” Mozart died penniless within months of finishing The Magic Flute, and it’s likely his true last will and testament. Behind the bad jokes and dance tunes is a passionate hymn to human brotherhood. Swafford again: “As the choruses sing of the rebirth of wisdom, one hears the majestic opening chords of the new era of humanity, the dawn of Enlightenment and democracy. Even if in reality the new dawn would not prove so transcendent as it seemed in the anticipation, Mozart’s music captured for all time the heart-filling grandeur of that dream.”
Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute is the only one I’ve seen, so I don’t know if other productions favor Papageno over Tamino as much as this one. Tamino seems a rather wimpy (albeit pretty) hero from the opening moments when he has to be rescued from a dragon that looks like a 12-foot version of a child’s stuffy. Mozart didn’t shortchange any of his characters musically, but I’d guess that his heart was with the simple joys of Papageno (and his Papagena) and the basso profundo solemnity of Sarastro.
Pauline Kael called Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute a “blissful present.” She goes on to write: “Filmed operas generally ‘open out’ the action or else place us as if we were spectators at a performance, looking at the entire stage. Bergman has done neither—he has moved into the stage….We get the pixillated feeling that we’re near enough to touch the person who is singing; we might be dreamers sailing invisibly among the guests at a cloud-borne party.” Kael’s full review of the film, in When the Lights Go Down, is one of the critical pieces that first showed me how a truly gifted film critic can communicate both joy in celebrating the craft and wisdom in interpreting it. Here’s a little more Kael: “The opera is based on strict polarities, turning on male-female. The Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) is a glittering coloratura harpy, served by witches-in-training, while Sarastro, the deep, friendly bass (Ulrik Cold, whose face belies his name), and his priests stand for sunlight, justice, and reason. Not surprisingly, the Queen and her vamps are a delight, while Bergman has to use all his ingenuity to keep the solemn priests from grinding the show to a halt. This is where his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, turns wizard….Bergman was able to spare us the usual views of tongues and tonsils by having Ericson record the score first (in Swedish, which sounds remarkably pleasing), then playing it bit by bit while photographing the singers, who move their mouths in a more genteel manner than is feasible in actual performance. The synchronization is as close to impeccable as seems humanly possible….[Bergman] recently said, ‘Making the film was the best time of my life. You can’t imagine what it is like to have Mozart’s music in the studio every day.’ Actually, watching the movie, we can.”
Of course, Ms. Kael also wrote that she wanted to strangle the young girl in the audience. Nobody’s perfect.