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Playing with ‘The Magic Flute’

The Magic Flute

a film directed by Ingmar Bergman. with the Swedish Stage Broadcasting Network Symphony, conducted by Eric Ericson. Sung and spoken in Swedish, with English subtitles

A Preface To “The Magic Flute”

by E.M. Batley
Dennis Dobson (London), 175 pp., £3.00

The Magic Flute,” Masonic Opera

by Jacques Chailley, translated by Herbert Weinstock
Knopf, 352 pp., $10.00

Three Mozart Operas

by R.B. Moberly
Dodd, Mead, 303 pp., $7.50

Explain the puzzle, tell me now.”

—Tamino, Act 1,
The Magic Flute

The libretto of The Magic Flute, once dismissed as absurd and undeserving of serious scrutiny, is today overmined for buried “meaning” and “significance,” and often uncritically praised as a “faultless dramatic structure.” Nor will a balance between Philistine ridicule and sanctimonious approbation be found in the latest spate of books about the opera, which are far more concerned with the interpretation of the libretto than with the musico-dramatic entity. In all likelihood the inadvertent as well as the intentional enigmas of the plot, along with the perennial controversy over the authorship of the libretto, will continue to provide a rich quarry for musicologists. But two other particular mysteries envelop The Magic Flute: the question of the representation of Freemasonry, which some believe was more important to Mozart than his Catholicism, and the seeming coincidence of death as a theme of the opera and Mozart’s own tragic end after he completed the work.

Most audiences for Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute will come to it as they would to any other film, being quite unaware that the allegorical content has provoked more than a century of debate. Though trying to experience the cinema version through moviegoers’ eyes and to judge it on its own merits, the reviewer still must mention from the outset that the film highlights the inconsistencies and structural weaknesses of the libretto. That Bergman also recognizes them is evident in his transpositions of episodes; one of these, the switching of the Papageno courtship scene from the end of the opera to a place immediately preceding the scene of the Ordeals, eliminates a serious anticlimax. The camera also points up illogicalities that may not trouble opera audiences, inured as they are to the conventions of that form, but will disturb Bergman addicts who are accustomed to expect at least a modicum of rational sequence.

The film seems to have been conceived in misunderstandings. Bergman revealed a surprising aspect of his artistic approach in a publicity release:

The most important factor to me was that the singers should have natural voices. You can find artificially cultivated voices that sound marvelous, but you can never really believe that a human personality is doing the singing.

The truth is that only the most highly trained voices can even attempt to sing The Magic Flute. Nor, by way of compensation, does Bergman’s cast, which is unable to sing it, abound in “human personalities.” The opera’s greatest musical delights can be achieved only if the role of Pamina is entrusted to a consummate artist possessing a superior voice—unfortunately not the case here. Musically inadequate, too, are Tamino, whose singing certainly does not suffer from too much “cultivation”; Papageno, whom the film audience might easily take to be the opera’s chief protagonist; and the Queen of Night, who sounds extremely harsh in Act II (a touch of Bergman, not Mozart, realism) and who is uncertain in pitch toward the end, the final B flat of her second aria belonging to some species of unidentified flying objects.

If the voices are “natural,” Bergman’s simulated theater audience, over which the camera periodically and distractingly pans, is too obviously artificial, being a veritable Family of Man—though with Swedes outnumbering Indians, Japanese, and Bushmen, and no one actually wearing a bone in the nose. The expressions on the faces in this spurious melting pot are studied, and all are intently watching something invisible to the film audience. Throughout the Overture the camera jumps from one blank face to another, sometimes even on the beat, as if Bergman were asking the public to ignore the musical fugue and to watch a visual one on the countenance of mankind. At the change of tempo, however, the camera offers a glimpse of Lange’s portrait of Mozart’s inspiring face, then returns to the audience, then once more, during a measure’s rest, shunts back to Mozart, and, finally, in accelerando, again settles on the now-transfixed audience.

The illusion of an actual performance is partly established through some preliminary shots of Drottningholm, whose Royal Theater is contemporary to the one in which The Magic Flute was first played. The film also uses the eighteenth-century thunder-maker, creaky deus ex machina, and other props—though not Tamino’s charmed animals, which look like expensive Christmas toys from F. A. O. Schwarz. The pretense of a live production is further sustained by the sound of an orchestra tuning up, by applause at the ends of scenes and acts, and by backstage tours, on one of which we see Papageno preparing to make an entrance, the Queen of Night’s Ladies puffing cigarettes, and a slave of Monostatos reading a Donald Duck comic. Another theatrical, as opposed to cinematographic, device is the occasional display of posters spelling out maxims from such songs as “Könnte jeder brave Mann.” But almost the only special technique of the film medium that Bergman employs is the close-up; rarely does the camera look at the stage even from the perspective of the Drottningholm audience, and during Pamina’s great aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” the lens focuses claustrophobically on her mouth and—that currently overpublicized anatomical feature—jaws.

The scenery and costumes represent a variety of periods that does not include the Egyptian, the only one traditional to the opera. Thus Pamina is dressed like a Habsburg princess. Monostatos sports a von Stroheim tunic and haircut, and Papagena wears a modern fur-collar coat and matching hat—in the snow, this apocryphal substance apparently being intended to suggest still another Ordeal to add to those of Water and Fire. Except that the flames are very loud, the back-drops might have been adapted from Doré’s Dante.

Bergman generally follows the libretto, despite minor cuts, interpolations, and changes of order, most of which are justifiable. A more serious complaint might be that he missed an opportunity to alter the spoken dialogue and thereby, if possible, clarify the subject-matter and the story. Scholars have attempted to show that the action of the play is coherent, obscurities and inconsistencies notwithstanding. But their explications usually depend on vague references to “Mozart’s genius.” Here, for instance, is the argument of a critic for the London Times:

The contradictions make reasonable sense and do not need to be explained away. Chiefly it is Mozart’s music that makes sense of the peculiar mixture…in the humanity which he found rooted and grounded in every scene and character.

But does this say anything? In truth, the libretto makes so little sense that such eminent Mozartians as Edward Dent1 and Hermann Abert2 reached the conclusion that the original dramatic scheme must have been changed after the first scenes had already been composed.

The crux of the Dent-Abert thesis is that the forces of evil, as they are so presented at the beginning of the story, must have been intended to continue as such throughout, and that later Mozart and his librettist, wishing to expand the representations of their Masonic rituals and beliefs, reversed the line-up, making the good Queen bad and the bad sorcerer good. At the beginning, the Queen of Night enlists the spectator’s sympathies by saving the life of Tamino, a wandering prince to whom she entrusts the rescue of her daughter, who has been kidnaped by Sarastro. The Queen does not trouble to explain that this supposedly evil magus is actually the girl’s guardian and her dead father’s deputy.

But when Tamino becomes fully acquainted with Sarastro it is revealed that he and his brotherhood are the virtuous ones and the Queen and her followers the villains. This switch is effected without preparation either in the development of the characters or through dramatic incident, and, as a result, during most of the opera viewers are confused and unable to identify with one side or the other; after being deceived about the first alignment, they naturally mistrust the second.

Professor Chailley and others dispute the Dent-Abert theory, holding that the turnabout in roles is a calculated ruse, and that the ambiguities are resolved by the end of the first act. Chailley commits himself to the postulate that

Nothing appears in the behavior of the Queen of Night of the legendary change in the subject, no alteration, but instead an altogether normal psychological progression….

In order to account for the Queen’s anger and violence in Act 2, he rationalizes that, being thwarted in the “hope of the domination of Woman over Man, [she] becomes deranged.” But no “psychological progression” leading to madness has been shown. And if the libretto is to be analyzed in these modern terms, why does the Queen undergo such an overwhelming change, while her daughter, who is subjected to attempted rape, imprisonment, rejection by those closest to her, and extreme mental cruelty, survives unscathed—and all this without the advantage of her mother’s supernatural powers? What makes Chailley’s thesis even less tenable, however, is that it implies an audience sophistication far beyond that of the popular theater for which the opera was written.

Further blurring of the division between right and wrong is exemplified in the character of Pamina’s actual jailer, Monostatos, whose wickedness is manifest and consistent throughout the opera, but who, for some reason, is Sarastro’s trusted servant. Here the audience balks, having already learned that Sarastro has the power “to read hearts” and must therefore be aware of Monostatos’s evil designs on Pamina. Sarastro is further suspect for his failure to explain to the terrified Pamina that her abduction and captivity were for her own protection. Then, when he states his case against her mother, the charges prove to be petty and unimpressive: the Queen is arrogant and too ambitious for a woman, although these same qualities are acceptable in Sarastro himself, who in addition is self-righteous, tyrannical, and a slaveholder.

Fairy stories—and The Magic Flute is one—are based on Manichaean oppositions; the right side triumphs in the end and the moral is made. But in this opera, while the audience is frequently advised of Sarastro’s virtues, he actually shows himself as vindictive, and both he and the Speaker of the brotherhood are revealed as rabid misogynists: after condemning her mother, Sarastro tells Pamina, “You need a man to guide you,” while the Speaker warns Tamino that women are mere chatterers and not to be trusted. No sharply contrasting character traits are distributed to either side, in fact, and the real contest reduces to one between the sexes, a war actually fought in the opera’s penultimate scene—and predictably won by the men in five seconds flat.

True, when Tamino is ordained into the brotherhood, Pamina stands by his side wearing the same robes, thereby indicating that she too has been admitted in at least a limited capacity (as women were allowed to become Freemasons in Mozart’s time). But this does not gainsay the opera’s profoundly anti-female bias—from which it is not possible to infer Mozart’s own views on “women’s place,” although The Magic Flute does reflect his well-known idealization of the institution of marriage.

  1. 1

    Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study (London, 1913).

  2. 2

    W. A. Mozart (Leipzig, 1923). An English translation of this book is long overdue.

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