Thursday, January 11, 2007

Review: Ingmar Bergman's production of The Magic Flute

Well, Amazon wanted to know. I ordered the DVD from them several months ago and just got a "send us a customer review on this item" request. I figure if I'm going to take the time to do a writeup, I might as well post it here as well and get some extra mileage out of my work!

I'm posting this on Amazon under the heading "Excellent Opera Intro for Kids," mainly because that was my purpose in buying it and because I really do think it serves that purpose. But it's not just a "kids'" show; I think it's worth seeing by any adult not openly hostile to light opera as well.

My review (ahem):

I first saw Ingmar Bergman's Magic Flute years ago when it came out in theaters, and I was enchanted by it. Far from the heavy, angst-laden psychological drama typically associated with Bergman, this production is a beautiful, colorful musical fantasy filled with magic, song, and the saving power of True Love. In other words, it's a Mozart light opera. The heroic characters are noble and beautiful, the comic characters funny and appealing, and the evil characters creepy and obviously the bad guys (although the Queen of the Night's seductive beauty and charm conceal her evil nature until she reveals it in the second act.) The heroes must undergo frightening perils before they can be together, but although we worry about them we know that all will work out for good, good will triumph over evil, and happiness will reign at the end.

Bergman uses the clever device in his production of setting the piece as if it were a "little theater" production (using shots of a gorgeous 18th-C Swedish opera house set in equally gorgeous woods.) He begins the overture with the camera zooming in on members of a multiethnic (but heavily Swedish--well, it was thirty years ago) audience, coming back to focus repeatedly on a redheaded girl about ten years of age whose facial expressions are subsequently employed throughout the piece to set the mood for each scene. He begins and ends the performance on the small stage and occasionally returns to it (as at the intermission) but the action very quickly expands beyond this small set to a beautiful and sometimes scary "wider world" through which it proceeds. Light, color, and costuming are all brought into play to enhance and explain each scene and song. While the story is not a complex one (it's a Mozart light opera, for Pete's sake!) the dramatic treatment makes it engaging and the music is beautifully rendered. The performers are well-chosen for their roles: the comic characters Papageno and Papagena are especially delightful and the Queen's transformation from an "aggrieved" mother of goddesslike beauty to an almost witchy embodiment of vengeful evil is effective. A trio of too-cute boy sopranos in 1900 dress, piloting an "old-timey" hot air balloon assist the protagonists at critical moments and give the piece a very 1970's (remember when Turn-of-the-Century was in?) touch.

I ordered this DVD mainly for an eleven-year-old who was starting on a piano piece from the opera (and who has never cared for opera.) Although I don't think we'll ever make an opera lover out of her, she did decide that this one was "all right" and even gave it a second viewing with no prompting on my part. Thus I think that if you are interested in introducing opera to children of preteen or young teen age it is a good choice. A few caveats, however:

First, it is performed in Swedish with an English subtitle option. Unless you are prepared to read the whole thing to your children while the action is going on, or preview it and give the children a rundown before starting the show, much of it will probably be lost on children not old enough to read with confidence. Something more in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein might be preferable for the prereading set if Swedish is not a native tongue.

Second, some characters and scenes are dark and really frightening and may be too much for sensitive younger children. I was in in my teens at my first viewing and, having been a really wussy kid, I know I couldn't have sat through it as a young child. Parents should use their judgement and consider previewing if they are concerned about this.

Third, one of the later scenes, in which the heroes have to pass through Hell (or something similar) features bodystockinged dancers of uncertain gender gyrating weirdly in pairs and threesomes in the background. To me it looks a bit like a Heironymus Bosch painting come to life, but some folks might find the effect salacious and prefer not to show it to their kids. There are also two near-suicides in the piece, both defused by the cherubs ex machina in the balloon. The first is when the romantic heroine Pamina, convinced that her prince doesn't love her and pressured by her mother to murder her father, contemplates stabbing herself instead. The second is an absurd parody of the first: Papageno, despairing of ever reuniting with his Papagena, attempts haphazardly to hang himself from a tree. It is obvious to anyone that he will not be successful as he is incompetent to even tie up the rope properly; the whole scene is played for laughs and resolved happily with the return of the beloved. But again, parents may wish to use discretion with young or sensitive children or those who have had to deal with the reality of sucide close to them.

Addendum:
I've been over to Amazon's page for this film since posting this, and thought I'd add some observations on the reviews already posted. While they are largely positive (it seems I wasn't the only one who fell in love with this film when it came out) there were a few objections that potential viewers may want to consider.

At least one commenter complained vehemently about the film's video and sound quality. It didn't bother me much (which I guess is either because I was too much transported by the story to notice or because our TV/player setup is of such low quality we don't even notice anymore!) But if you're a stickler for this sort of thing, then I suppose you may be annoyed by it. The commenter who lodged this complaint mentioned reflecting on his foolhardy purchase every time his kids played the DVD, however; so it seems somebody in the household was enjoying it!

Another commenter was a diehard Bergman fan who was apparently expecting angst, deep thought, and big metaphysical questions from this film. As I pointed out before, it's a Mozart light opera!!! If quintessential Bergman is what you're looking for, this isn't the place to find it. But hey, you didn't expect the guy to be morose all the time, did you?

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4 Comments:

Blogger MrsDarwin said...

Thank you for posting this -- it sounds like something my girls would really enjoy. I'll add it to my Netflix list first to make sure it won't frighten the small fry (the oldest is 4, after all.)

5:06 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Thanks for the comment--I hope you enjoy the film!

8:30 PM  
Anonymous desmond said...

Pa-pa-pa-pageno...
Pa-pa-pa-pageno...

:D

1:16 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Yep, that's the one!
Good to hear from you again, Desmond.

6:41 AM  

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