First, the overture, where people of all nations are settled in the auditorium to watch this version of the Mozart opera, the last he ever wrote. We are given particular attention to a red-haired girl whose placid but engaged reactions will be returned to throughout, even when the action has begun. Speaking of which, the curtain goes up and we are immersed in a fairy tale of the theatre, where Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) finds he has met his match in a fire-breathing dragon while making his way through the forest one day, but is rescued by three mysterious ladies who want a big favour in return...
Director Ingmar Bergman was not much given to the lighthearted when it came to his work, but he did have this adaptation of a stage opera on his resumé which was often pointed to by his numerous fans as proof he was not all doom and gloom, and could deliver something frothy and fun when he put his mind to it. Naturally, the dour Swede's idea of fun was not, say, what you went to see the average Disney movie for, and there was a definite heavy-handed quality to the sparkle he was attempting to sprinkle across the famed classical piece. For some, this is their favourite adaptation of Mozart for the screen.
For others, it's a bit of a slog that only the brightness of the music and performances managed to life, and certainly there was a determinedly theatrical style to almost every frame as Bergman refused to open this up cinematically. There was a reason for that: it was not a cinema film, it was a television special designed as a treat for mid-nineteen-seventies Swedish viewers on the first of January, though it was, predictably, served up as an experience for the arthouses across the world for those film buffs eager for new Bergman content, thus it was included in the director's filmography when it would be more accurate to term it on the level of a variety show.
Of course, it had ideas higher above that station, bringing the opera to the masses, and in this instance sung entirely in Swedish as translated from the German. For English speakers, hearing opera translated into their native tongue was apt to sound odd and a little off for whatever reason: call it a need for artistic fidelity, or simply being jarring to hear and understand the words in that manner when you were used to its original incarnation. Unless you spoke Swedish, however, this sounded well-translated from Mozart, and would not matter so much if you preferred the German, with the power of the voices the thing that was uppermost in importance for this performance, as one would suspect was important in any production for the stage (film and television were of lesser importance, it seemed).
If you knew the story, you would probably be able to better assess how it came across under Bergman, though it was possible to follow what was going on if that plot was what interested you, but it was largely the melodies that were what you should have been here for, especially when the director preferred to keep his camera in tight on the singers' faces, aware that anything visually grand and sweeping would have been lost on the small screen as opposed to the big screen he was more used to. The comic couple were nicely contrasted with the more serious counterparts, not that they were funny at all, but you had the impression Bergman was more enthused by the tale of Tamino and his search for his true love he hasn't met yet, Pamina (Irma Urrila), as instructed by the Queen of the Night (Birgit Nordin) in return for saving him. There was the occasional example of imaginative imagery, but in the main this settled for stagebound throughout, leaving it dependent on your liking for Mozart as to how much you got out of it.
[The BFI's Blu-ray looks fine, but sounds better, and has three vintage short films as extras (Lady Dunn's accent is quite something).]
Undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of cinema, Ingmar Bergman was often accused of being too depressing as his subjects covered the existence (or otherwise) of God and deep-seated marital problems (he himself was married five times), but he always approached them with a sympathetic eye. Among his most memorable films were Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal (with its unforgettable chess game with Death), Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring (the inspiration for Last House on the Left), Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. He also made international stars of Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.