Ingmar Bergman does it again!
The challenges of making an opera work visually are almost insurmountable. While many operas cry out for inventive staging, few of the performances I’ve seen ever manage to deliver consistently. Physical movement happens in real time, after all, and musical action doesn’t. And opera singers are paid to sing, not to act or to look young and beautiful, and most of the time they don’t. They just stand there and sing.3
Filming a live performance magnifies these flaws and adds others, notably echoing voices and booming footsteps. Furthermore, film brings us much closer to the singers than is possible, or desirable, in a live performance. We see all the bad makeup, the bad wigs, and also the physical strain that goes into singing opera – the reddened faces, the swollen throats, and the flying saliva.
But just making a “real” movie and dubbing in the singing won’t work either, because most of the drama in opera occurs in the arias – people singing about what they’re going to do or what they’ve done, rather than actually doing it. The action of an opera doesn’t occur in the “real time” and the “real world” of film.
So what to do, what to do? The answer, for Bergman at least, and for The Magic Flute at least, is to accept, and often to emphasize, the artificiality of opera while using the superior flexibility of film to vary what we’re seeing in ways that are impossible during a live performance.
Granted, The Magic Flute lends itself to this kind of treatment. Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, was a prominent German Shakespearean actor, who’d just finished a run in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most artificial plays. Schikaneder imported Shakespeare’s characters wholesale, so that Prospero equals Sarastro, Ferdinand equals Tamino, Miranda equals Pamina, Caliban equals Monostratos, and Ariel equals Popagano.4 The Magic Flute hovers deliberately between comic opera and fairy tale, and Bergman takes off on this.
Even Ingmar doesn’t always get it right, and often he gets it very wrong. The film begins with the overture playing behind shots of a butter-gold sun reflected in a placid lake, followed by exteriors of an elegant theater nestled in a bucolic landscape – all of our eighteenth-century fantasies rolled into one. Inside the theater, however, we’re confronted by a modern, “family of man” audience that is decidedly skewed in favor of serious, square-jawed Swedes. Bergman keeps coming back to a blond girl,5 who’s cute enough but not very animated, and certainly no match for the angelic music flooding the soundtrack. Bergman uses her for reaction shots throughout the film, as though she were the fairy princess for whom Mozart wrote The Magic Flute, and it just doesn’t work.
Once the opera begins, the film improves. Tamino, the opera’s hero, enters, pursued by a dragon. The creature is funny rather than fierce, with a languid tread. We’re invited to laugh at Tamino’s distress rather than share it. But when the Three Ladies enter to slay the beast, Bergman uses close-ups, camera angles, and lighting to make the dragon’s death more than a joke. The huge, grotesque head is frightening, and the death, though bloodless, has some weight.
In the scenes that follow, Bergman uses the artifice of a live performance as a symbol for the ability of art to take us beyond the mundane. The “charming” scenery and stage sets, so obviously false, at times beckon toward an ideal world – for example, when the Magic Boys descend in their balloon, somehow both steam-operated and hand-cranked, a product of Victorian England rather than eighteenth-century Vienna.6
The Magic Flute isn’t all beer and skittles. Bergman shows a remarkable weakness for “smell of the greasepaint, roar of the crowd” backstage sentimentality and also falls back on the stock device of pretending that the principals are the same offstage as on: the singer who plays Popagano really is a simple, fun-loving fellow, for example, and Tamino and Pamina really are in love with one another. He also “improves” Schikaneder’s libretto with heavy-handed Freudian touch-ups (are there any other kind?).7
Despite these stumbles, Bergman gives us a Magic Flute that is almost as delightful to see as it is to hear. You may think that opera is a bore and trained voices a pain, but trust me, once you’ve heard the “Popagano/Popagana” duet at the end of The Magic Flute, you’re going to remember it for the rest of your life.
Opera lovers have been dreaming of the DVD format all their lives. Imagine, an entire opera on a single disc, which lets you move from overture to finale at the touch of a button! Unfortunately, one has to wonder if the recording industry hasn’t played a role in the destruction of opera: few operas have been added to the standard repertoire in the past 100 years, and practically nothing has been added in the past 50.8 If you want to learn more about opera on video, try “The Collector’s Guide to Opera Recordings and Videos, maintained by “G. Riggs,” which gives a recommended video for 85 operas, along with multiple recordings, as well as links to other sites. (Entrants to the world of opera be warned – no one, but no one, can gush, bitch, snip, and snipe, like opera buffs. Be prepared for attitude the likes of which you’ve never seen.)
- Or Die Zauberflöte, if you want to get snotty about it. [↩]
- Actually, I have no idea if this is true. DVD Planet lists about 100 filmed operas on DVD alone, and I’ve seen less than 20 on DVD and tape combined. All but the Bergman and Joseph’s Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979) have been filmed or taped versions of live performances. Aside from the Bergman, the visual quality of these works is mediocre at best. Sadly, Losey’s film is a disaster – a ponderous, static exercise in cinematic Marxism, intended to show that Mozart wrote Don Giovanni to expose the decadence of the European aristocracy, which he didn’t. [↩]
- The absurdities of la vie operatique are hung out to dry in René Clair’s brilliant Le Million (1931). The Marx Brothers “borrowed” heavily from this film in A Night at the Opera, as did Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. [↩]
- Schikaneder, who went for the big yuks, took the Popagano role, and made the birdcatcher half Ariel and half Bottom. But not to worry. Mozart fixes everything. [↩]
- Maybe just a little too blond. [↩]
- These kids are so cute that just the sight of them is enough to increase the birth rate. [↩]
- Schikaneder’s libretto is, famously, a mess, but that’s half the charm. It’s hard to see how anyone could make The Magic Flute coherent, and, at any rate, Bergman wasn’t the man for the job. [↩]
- The most famous “modern” operas, Lulu and Wozzeck, date from the twenties. [↩]