Friday 23 March 2018

Masonic mastery: "The Magic Flute"

By 1975, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was thinking and working outside the cinema as regularly as he was inside it. His made-for-TV adaptation of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, now rightly being returned to our attentions care of the BFI, has the look and feel of a very specific creative dream: to see whether something that worked in one medium for one crowd might be brought in from the cold to work in another for an appreciably different viewing public, namely those who can't so easily afford fancy boxes, dinner jackets and cummerbunds. (Presumably Kenneth Branagh felt much the same urge when orchestrating his 2006 film of the opera, but we don't seem to talk about it any more: the BFI may have to reissue that in three-to-four decades.) That interest in audience - and the humanism informing it - is immediately apparent from Bergman's use of the overture, played out over transfixing, fast-cut close-ups of a crowd of all ages, moods and colours, waiting (as we were, mere moments before) for the show to come on. As one great artist outlines his methods, so too does another: these close-ups - the great, penetrating weapon of the Bergman canon - are key to how the director converts filmed theatre, and theatre filmed for television at that, into the kind of cinema we might also gaze up in wonder at.

The story is, as it always was, an epic quest: one of spells and monsters, hot air balloons and trials by fire, and - in this retelling at least - a man in a furry walrus outfit. Yet Bergman's trick, or rather his considerable skill, is to convince us that the events the material describes are taking place in a small, intimate, well-furnished space - right before our very eyes! - that is ultimately not so far removed or distinct from those within which his earlier chamber pieces played out. It helps that the more emotive songs are sung directly to us, an attempt to connect only strengthened by the onscreen lyrics printed for our benefit on visibly corrugated cardboard, and by the intermission sequence that finds cast members lounging around backstage, some smoking, others reading Donald Duck comics. No filmmaker has done more to put down the drawbridge that separates opera from those onlookers who might approach feeling scared, sceptical or suspicious of it: a magic flute here gets transformed, via the simplest and most touching of gestures, into an olive branch.

Any reservations this particular opera sceptic had remained solely with the source, which - talk about a #latereview - doesn't go anywhere for ages at the start of its second act, and for all its clever rhymes and gliding melodies, still seems a bit of a nonsense, the kind of larky panto a genius like Wolfie could presumably knock out in a weekend after sweating over the "Requiem". (The Masonic element provided a nice hook for that great Morse episode, but I'm not sure it makes the narrative any more intrinsically comprehensible.) It's Bergman who grants it heft, first by acknowledging that somewhere in its guts, there sits a familiarly messy divorce, the squabblings of sundered parents over the fate of their daughter, and that this trope might eventually open up a view on that eternal trade-off between innocence and experience. What's the point of possessing an enchanting instrument, if nobody else is around to enjoy its benefits? Maybe that's a little crude - and probably why I'm barred from the ENO - but the film is a quest for love before the grave, a gentle reframing that makes even Papageno's potentially irritating panpipe-blowing funny and touching.

By the time the curtain descends once more, what that onscreen audience - and what the real audience - have soaked up and warmed themselves by, like sunflowers turning their faces to the sun, is a hale and hearty entertainment that succeeds in repositioning a work originally conceived and performed in Vienna as somehow entirely and edifyingly Scandinavian. Watching Bergman's all-female chorus reconfigure themselves before the camera in the manner of Anni-Frid and Agnetha in one of ABBA's more operatic promos, you find yourself wondering whether Benny and Björn were exposed to it on Swedish TV at a formative creative moment, and thus drawing a mental line (albeit a sharply descending mental line) between Bergman and Mamma Mia!, a film that kept the drawbridge lowered long enough for its audience to bed in with Bacardi Breezers. My bratty teenage self wouldn't have permitted such a statement for a moment, but four seasons of Gael García Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle have done much to convert me: this movie has by far the better soundtrack.

The Magic Flute is now available to stream via the BFI website.

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