by Sam Juliano
Ingmar Bergman was laid to rest on a misty morning in early August, 2007 on the island of Faro, where he spent the last years of his life. At the cinema master’s request the ceremony was short and attended by only 70, including celebrated Bergman stock company thespians, Liv Ullman, Max Von Sydow and Erland Josephson. Eulogies were noted for their brevity and the musical itinerery was a sparing employment of J.S. Bach by way of organ and cello. This modest presentation may be been selected for it’s simple purity, but it underscored a deep passion for classical music that manifested itself from the very earliest films. Music in Darkness (1948) tells the story of a young pianist left blind by a shooting accident; To Joy (1950) narrates the misfortunes of an ambitious violinist, and Summer Interlude (1951) recounts the life of a ballerina at the Stockholm Opera. Generous excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn are found in these films. In the opening feature of the celebrated “Faith Trilogy”, Through A Glass Darkly, the extensive use of classic compositions completely supplanted the original film music that was more common during the late 50’s period when Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries appeared. In Darkly the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 appears four times. It’s usage here signaled a marked upsurge in classical accompaniment all the way up to his final film Sarabande in 2003. While it’s clear that a number of the pieces were vital structural and metaphorical components in his deep philosophical inquiries, there was a clear enough passion for the intrinsic beauty of the music that was deftly used as a mood device. Robert Schumann’s ravishingly beautiful and gloriously romantic Piano Quintet in E-flat major set the tone for Fanny and Alexander under the film’s lengthy credit sequence, and underlined the film’s brighter contexts. Conversely, there is telling use of Bach’s Partita in Shame, The Passion of Anna and Hour of the Wolf that connotes despair in its rawest constriction, and the Bach passages in Cries and Whispers are used to piercing effect. Bergman connects characters to music a number of times, including the sequence in Autumn Sonata when Charlotte sketches the figure of Chopin, before beginning to play the Prelude, and the one where Johan listens at full blast to the scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Sarabande. Lastly, Bergman experiments his sense of musical analysis during an entire film with In the Presence of a Clown, which recounts Schubert’s last days, in both a free and erudite manner.
Thus, it should have come to no surprise to anyone in the film community in 1973 that Bergman focused his attention on one of the greatest of all operas, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a treasure trove of lyrical arias and duets and choral singing, but perhaps most significantly a showcase of broad comedy and spoken dialogue, components that allowed Bergman to further explore his love for theatre. Indeed, throughout his life, Bergman candidly told interviewers he preferred the stage to the screen, and preferred to be remembered for what he achieved in live venues. But Bergman understood from the very start that he needed to draw pointed attention to the artificiality and stylization of the operatic form, that is to say he balked at using realistic sets in the service of a form that was resoundingly theatrical. The director even goes a step further to accentuate the artificiality by setting the entire work in a theatre (the famed Drottningholm Court Theatre in Stockholm), where an audience watches a stage performance of The Magic Flute.
Broken down to its barest essentials the story of The Magic Flute equates to this: Tamino, a young prince, slays a dragon, encounters a trio of women, and through them the “Queen of the Night.” The Queen enlists his aid to emancipate her daughter, the beautiful Pamina from her allegedly evil father, Sarastro. Having fallen in love with a portrait of Palmina, Tamino and Papageno, a bird-catcher, set out to rescue her. They are armed against mortal danger with a magic flute and a set of bells. When they are captured by Sarastro, he decrees that Tamino and Pamina can wed, but only after Tamino has passed through a series of initiations. To complicate and delay the happy ending, the thwarted Queen plots to destroy the temple, but is foiled by the rising sun. This being a fairy tale opera, all’s well that ends well. Tamino and Pamina are happily united and Papageno finds love with a bird-woman of his own. All the followers of wisdom, including the triumphant lovers praise and thank Osiris and Iris. “The strong have won and as reward, are crowned with everlasting crown of beauty and wisdom.”
Composed in 1791, the last year of Mozart’s life, The Magic Flute is the final of a trio of operatic masterpieces that also includes Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. Referred to by many as Die Zauberflote (it’s German title) the opera is a world away from the rococo sophistication of Cosi fan tutte (which preceeded it) both musically and morally. For the first time Mozart was composing an opera for the people of Vienna rather than for their emperor. The commission to write a new opera came from Emmanuel Schikaneder, an impressario who was also a famous Shakespearean actor, an inveterate carouser, and, like Mozart, a Freemason. He had a seemingly brilliant idea for a libretto–a sort of fairy tale with plenty of special effects (including storms and trick animals) and lots of comic relief, all done up in the Oriental style that had reportedly made such a hit at two competing playhouse that year. Mozart agreed, and the result was The Magic Flute, an opera that has been called both “the strangest of Mozart’s operas” and “The first and perhaps the only great masterpiece of music ever created deliberately for ‘the masses.’ Beethoven and Wagner were devoted admirers. George Bernard Shaw declared that it’s grand aria, “O Isis und Osiris” was “the only music which might be put into the mouth of God without blasphemy.” Schikaneder’s libretto is a hodgepodge of crowd-pleasing comedy, awe-inspiring pyrotechnics, and heartrending romance. But it is also a spiritual fable; the dreamy peregrinations of the plot are rife with Masonic symbols and thinly veiled references to Masonic beliefs. The acquisition of wisdom is the true subject of the opera; the moral center of the story comes into focus during Sarastro’s second-act aria, when he avows that “evil cannot survive when all people love one another. Anyone who does not accept this knowledge does not deserve to be a human being.” This coda, the foundation of Masonic belief, was undoubtedly an article of faith for both Mozart and Schikaneder, and the humanism and progressiveness that pervade the opera make it more earnest as well as more mysterious than any of Mozart’s previous works.
The Magic Flute premiered on September 30, 1791, and was accounted a great success almost immediately. Tragically, Mozart had little time to enjoy this triumph, for he died on December 5 at age 34, afflicted by the idea that he now had been the victim of poison. Though few scholars now give any credence to the old rumor that he was killed by the rival composer Salieri, Mozart’s sense of persecution was certainly real enough. Supposedly, it had all begun the previous summer, when a mysterious visitor delivered a letter without a signature” offering Mozart a substantial sum for arequiem mass, the sole stipulation being that Mozart was not to inquire into the identity of the patron. Accepting the commission, Mozart began work on the requiem, though he was already in the middle of two operatic works, The Clemency of Titus and The Magic Flute. When he was called suddenly to Prague later that summer the messenger reappeared “like a ghost’ according to Mozart’s wife Constance, to ask about his progress on the requiem. This visitation discomfited Mozart greatly and later in the year he became haunted by the notion that he was writing the piece for his own funeral. He continued to work on the requiem, but could not bring himself to finish it. As he lay dying, he was much preoccupied with the unfinished work, even attempting to organize rehearsals in his sickroom; but his final words were about The Magic Flute. He is reported to have imagined that he was at the theatre, where his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, was singing the part of the Queen of the Night, and he quoted to have said “Quiet, quiet! Hofer is just taking her top F;–now my sister-in-law is singing her second aria…how strongly she striles and holds the B-flat: ‘Hear, hear, hear the mother’s curse!” Soon thereafter, Mozart died.
Bergman, a self-confessed “conductor” at heart, brought his own metaphysical interpretation of the work, while modestly striving to emulate the playful underpinnings of the original 1791 production at the Theatre auf der Wieden in Vienna. Pre-eminant Bergman scholar Peter Cowie discloses that while the film is artificially set in the aforementioned Drottningholm Theatre, it was not actually shot there. Says Cowie:
“Bergman wanted to shoot the film inside the celebrated Drottningholm Palace (in a royal park on the outskirts of Stockholm) but the scenery was considered too fragile to accomodate a film crew. So the stage–complete with wings, curtains, and wind machines–was painstakingly copied and erected in the studios of the Swedish Film Institute, under the direction of Henny Noremark……Noremark and his colleagues painted each prop and backdrop in the same tone and shade as it would have been in the time of Mozart.”
Bergman asserts that Mozart wrote his score for The Magic Flute with a specific stage in mind, one that is around 22 feet wide. Once the construction was complete Bergman, no doubt feeding his own inclinations and suppressed talents, worked on the film’s score with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, reportedly recording it in an old circus building. At this time he made the most crucial artistic decision that in the end was to distinguish this presentation of The Magic Flute like no other before and since. He utilized the “playback” method, which required that all the music is prerecorded by the artists and orchestra, then replayed in segments in the film studio until the moment the director is satisfied with both lip synchronization and acting performance. Indeed Cowie reveals:
“Ericson and Bergman paid meticulous attention to the tempi, phrasing, and dynamics of the recording, to ensure that the first-ever stereo soundtrack for a TV production would be well-nigh perfect.
Opera films nearly always offer up lip movements that are in tune with the words on the track, albit the spatial dimension is false. In Bergman’s The Magic Flute the voices are heard from precisely the exact positions on the set, allowing for three-dimensional intimacy. There are more than few instances where Bergman transforms the limitations of opera, making his production a filmic enterprise. During two Act II aria and at the climax he utilizes camera movements and quick editing to accomplish a dazzling viseral transformation. Bergman seems at home with the spiritual isolation that’s woven into the opera perhaps even more than he is with the upbeat conclusion. In a long section in Act One Tamino declares: “Oh endless night, will you never lighten? When will the darkness ever brighten? The ghostly response of the priests follow with “Soon—or never.” It’s almost as if Schikaneder was a clairvoyant and had knowledge of Bergman’s intentions of 200 years hence. In any case Schikaneder’s Shakespearean scholarship had a more profound effect on him than just acting stylistics. The use of the close-up is employed in this opera film to maximum effect, particularly in its comprehensive coverage of the audience members, and even in some delightful glimpses of life backstage during the intermission that reveals bored technicians, stage machinery faltering and Papageno fast asleep nearly missing a cue.
Of course, if one must substantiate the inclusion of an opera film in a countdown of the ‘greatest musicals ever made” one must draw some attention to the music in the opera, which in Bergman’s film is overwhelmingly faithful to the source material. Musicologists in recent decades have come to see the sublime beauty and bouncy playfulness in the score as the most mature Mozart, certainly equal in that regard to his beloved “Clarinet Concerto in A,” which also was written near the end of his life in the final year. Yet the scoring is extremely simple, compared with the richness of Idomeneo or La Nozze di Figaro, but each piece has exactly the right orchestration. There were no doubt various reasons for this simplicity–an orchestra less brilliant than that of the court theatre, the singspiel tradition and a less sophisticated audience, but it embraces essentials. It’s admittedly s strange mix with the opaque allegorical underpinnings, which have inspired more interpretive speculation than any opera outside the canon of Richard Wagner. We can fairly conclude that the mixure of the music includes popular tunes, high-art arias, and bel-canto display. (‘bel canto opera features long, flowing vocal lines) The style veers rapidly from one extreme to the other from one extreme to the other, ranging from exalted opera seria (The Queen of the Night and Serastro) to knockabout opera buffa (Papageno) in the space of a few minutes. And within that range lie some of the finest vocal writing music Mozart ever produced, from heartfelt love songs (Tamino’s love-at-first glimpse outpouring, “Dies Bildnis”) to silly exchanges (Papageno’s nonetheless delightful duet with Papagena, in which they sing “Pa-pa-pa-pa” some 48 times); and hair-raising coloratura dementia (the Queen of the Night’s murderous “Die Holle Rache.” In the end ozart succeeds in transforming in his music the sexual love between Tamino and Pamina into an ideal that breaks away from the conventions of baroque opera and sets the stage for the music-drama Tristan und Isolde by Wagner. Bergman’s singers and musicisns are accomplished as well they should be, but they are no match for a number of studio recordings on record, with Otto Klemperer’s 1964 version with Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Popp, Gundula Janowitz and Gottlob Frick with the Philharmonia Orchestra standing tallest.
At the end of the day one must profess more than a little wonderment at the collaboration of who is arguably the greatest filmmaker of all-time, directing a production composed by a man who is arguably considered be the greatest in Western civilization, of an opera that is considered by some to be the greatest ever written. Somehow this all makes sense, and the wedding is a can’t miss. The results have confirmed this perception.
How The Magic Flute made the elite 70:
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 16 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 32 choice