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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.