The Magic Flute isnít really a cinematic version of the much-loved Mozart opera. Nor is it a filmed stage production, the type we see on public television. It is a little bit of both, combining theatrical and cinematic techniques to recreate the entire opera-going experience. For director Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Flute brings together his loves for classical music, theater, and film. Thereís a childlike innocence to the whole production Ė something we donít normally associate with Bergman. He approaches Mozartís opera with absolute simplicity: he tells the story as quickly and clearly as possible with a minimum of fuss.
Newly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, The Magic Flute will surprise most viewers with its glorious technical achievements. The entire soundtrack was prerecorded by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Eric Ericson. The music was then played back during live action shooting until Bergman was satisfied with the lip-synching. This painstaking technique approximates theatrical sound. We hear approaching footsteps from the right or left speakers. And we even hear the smallest details, like the rustling of a dress, with clarity. The Magic Flute, which premiered on Swedish television on New Yearís Day, 1975, was the first TV production to feature stereo sound. On DVD, the stereo score is presented in uncompressed PCM sound for near-perfect quality.
Equally accomplished is the visual design. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot the movie in saturated, almost bleeding colors that have been digitally transferred from a new 35 mm low-contrast print. The set design by Henny Noremark recreates the operaís 1791 premiere in Vienna. The stage has the same dimensions (22 feet wide) and each prop has the same color tone as the original productionís.
By re-enacting a stage production of The Magic Flute, Bergman deliberately distances us from the operaís action. He frequently cuts to close-ups of the audience, reminding us that we are in a theater, watching an audience watching an opera. In a way, it recalls Laurence Olivierís Henry V, which begins in Shakespeareís Globe Theater and then moves gradually into the play. Bergman, however, never makes the full transition from stage to cinema. He seems content on occupying both worlds, using the full technical resources of the film medium to create a rich theatrical production.
Adapting the original libretto by Emmanuel Schikaneder, Bergman has cut a third of the story for a more acceptable running time of 135 minutes. The essential plot remains the same: Tamino, a young warrior, is persuaded by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Tamina from Sarastro, a sorcerer. Tamino falls in love with Tamina and learns that Sarastro is not evil but a benevolent ruler. After completing several trials, Tamino weds Tamina.
Bergman has translated the opera into Swedish. For English speaking audiences, the result is a bit peculiar. We are watching a German language opera performed in Swedish with English subtitles. But Bergmanís passion is infectious no matter what the language. He communicates a good deal of the operaís emotion through close-ups (impossible to do on stage), relying on the perfect casting of the characters. In particular, Ulrick Cold as Sarastro exudes a beatific wisdom that says all there is to say about his character.
The DVD doesnít have any special tracks, but we donít miss them because the movie needs no explaining. It is a simple fairy tale executed with charm and wit. Compared to Bergmanís preceding film, the acerbic Scenes from a Marriage, The Magic Flute feels like a piece of fluff. This is clearly one of his minor works. But itís a worthy movie to own nonetheless because it shows a genius completely at ease, doing what he loves most.
The Magic Flute is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer with restored image and sound. Suggested retail price: $29.95.