In 1975 legendary director Ingmar Bergman set about to adapt Mozart's beloved opera The Magic Flute for Swedish television. Bergman gathered around him talented set designers, costumers, audio engineers and singers for the project, each of which would make a unique contribution to the final product.
The Magic Flute is a winsome fairy tale concerning a young prince who is sent to rescue the recently abducted daughter of The Queen of the Night. With the aid of a comic sidekick and a magic flute the prince embarks on a journey of love and self-discovery. The Magic Flute is certainly one of Mozart's most cherished works and among the best-known operas of all time.
Bergman approached The Magic Flute more as an elaborate stage play than as a film. He presents us with a stage bound performance where the singers look directly into the camera lens. The opening sequence shows lingering close ups of a crowd of onlookers forcing the viewer to abandon their attachment to standard movie viewing conventions. We're encouraged to identify with the theater audience and to consider ourselves one amongst its numbers.
Of course this isn't simply a matter of placing a few cameras and filming. Bergman's stage dressings are much too elaborate for a live performance and the camera moves freely around the actors (though staying in tight close up in order to avoid revealing the audience.) Clearly the hero's journey and subtle psychological content of Mozart's opera appealed to Bergman's sensibilities and the two seem to complement each other nicely.
Criterion delivers their usual high standard transfer in this release. The film elements are in very good condition with only a few instances of scratching. The contrast and black levels are very good and shadow detail is exemplary. Most of the images are suffused in a golden, almost orange, light. This is true to Bergman's vision as is evidenced by several emotional scenes in which the overall color scheme shifts to blue.
Sound was of primary concern to Bergman when he created this adaptation. The Magic Flute was to be the first stereo broadcast in Sweden and the director took great care to build a detailed and rich soundfield. Voices are placed in relation to the actor's position on stage and a good deal of foley is added to enhance the action both on and off screen. This DVD presents the audio track in LCPM stereo and it sounds fantastic. The dynamic range is surprisingly broad with detailed imaging, crisp highs and saturated lows.
There are no significant extras on this disc beyond the availability of English subtitles.
For all its merit as both a film and a staging of Mozart's opera I found The Magic Flute to be less than satisfying. Bergman's version is translated from the original German into Swedish and I found it a little hard on the ear. The liner notes state that 'The Magic Flute remains the finest screen version of an opera ever produced' but this is clearly hyperbole. Better operas (Bizet's Carmen conducted by Zubin Mehta and staring Maria Ewing and Gino Quilico comes immediately to mind) are available on DVD as are better Bergman films (Criterion's Autumn Sonata and The Seventh Seal.) Hard core opera fans will have made up their minds about this film long ago and casual listeners should consider renting it before purchasing. The same holds true for Bergman fans: completests will want this disc in their collection, others should rent first and buy later.