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DVD Pick: "The Magic Flute"


Ingmar Bergman directed a 1975 made-for-television version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" that I rate among the very best of the filmed operas. Although the Swedish director is famous for his melancholy movies, here he has created a cheerful one. The strange story is a fairy tale, and historically the opera has been found entertaining by many children. But I particularly recommend it to people who enjoy an intellectual challenge.

In my opinion, Bergman found an excellent way to film "The Magic Flute." He cast physically attractive singer-actors who look right for their roles, and he made a sound recording of them performing the music under studio conditions. He then shot those same performers enacting their roles on a film studio set, but edited the movie in a way that gives viewers the feeling they are experiencing a stage performance at Stockholm's Drottningholm Palace.

Bergman's "The Magic Flute" is set in some mythical world, and in the first three-quarters of an hour you may be lulled into thinking you're watching a typical fairy tale. The hero, young Prince Tamino, has an encounter with the middle-aged Queen of the Night and her minions, who tell him her daughter Pamina has been abducted by an evil sorcerer named Sarastro. The Queen induces Tamino to undertake Pamina's rescue.

But the narrative takes a curious turn when the young Prince reaches Sarastro's domain. There Tamino soon figures out that the situation is different from what he had been led to expect. Sarastro is not a malevolent creature; instead, he is a wise, just, and humane ruler. It's true, however, that Pamina is with him, but he is the young woman's father, and she does not need rescuing.

Although the story is fundamentally serious, it is nonetheless filled with humor and romance. Tamino goes on a search for meaning, and he is accompanied by a comic sidekick named Papageno. Along the way, Papageno has a delightful courtship with a young woman named Papagena. Also, Tamino and Pamina fall in love and become the new joint rulers of Sarastro's domain.

I recognize there are a number of crosscurrents in Bergman's "The Magic Flute," but I think it's clear that the ending, in which the happy Tamino and Pamina are exalted and crowned in glory, represents an apotheosis of the Couple. And Bergman reinforces this interpretation by showing Papageno and Papagena kissing each other while surrounded by their children.

Although I find the story intriguing in "The Magic Flute," I would say it's Mozart's sublime music that makes the opera great. As the narrative changes tone from lighthearted to serious, the composer perfectly matches the mood and action of the story. The Queen of the Night's vengeance aria is the flashiest number and is delivered dripping with venom in the movie. On the humorous side, the stuttering duet sung by Papageno and Papagena is memorable.

When Mozart wrote the music for the "The Magic Flute," he worked from a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, and the opera premiered in Vienna in 1791. I am not an expert, but I am aware of some differences between Bergman's screen adaptation and the original. For one thing, Schikaneder's libretto was in German, while the film is in Swedish. For another, the movie omits all references to Egypt, Isis, and Osiris. Finally, Bergman has Sarastro and Pamina as biological father and daughter, whereas in Schikaneder's libretto they are not related.

Bergman was always strongly influenced by modern psychology, and I speculate he was attracted to the Mozart-Schikaneder material because he could interpret it in terms of dream language. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night can be thought of as representing parental figures for both Tamino and Pamina. Furthermore, the two young people could symbolize separate components of a single personality, and by film's end, these components are united. From this perspective, the story is about the psychological passage of Tamino/Pamina from youth to adulthood.

I hope I've been able to give those unfamiliar with Bergman's "The Magic Flute" some idea of what it's like. While I personally admire the film enormously, I don't think it is a movie for everyone. I would say it appeals primarily to the intellect, rather than to the emotions. However, that seems to me fitting since Mozart was a man of the Enlightenment.

"The Magic Flute" DVD comes from Criterion Collection and provides no bonus materials of any kind. Below I've listed all the DVD's special features.

DVD Details:

  • DVD Release Date: May 16, 2000
  • Feature Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: G
  • Full-Screen (1.33:1), Color
  • Swedish PCM Stereo
  • English Subtitles
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