Being the best film adaptation of an opera doesn't take all that much. Stage-to-screen adaptations are, in general, tough to get more than passably well, and opera has the additional challenge of being exceptionally "stagey" and beholden to the peculiarities of live theater. Listening to a character spend five minutes singing to establish one plot point is one thing when you, the listener, are in the physical presence of the singer; take that away, and you're left with endless scenes of basically nothing visually happening.

So to begin with, there aren't that many films made out of operas, not compared to the number of films made out of musical theater, certainly. And the ones that exist are almost invariably obscure. Thus declaring, as more or less a simple matter of fact, that the television version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute directed by Ingmar Bergman has the best reputation in the history of filmed opera is declaring virtually nothing at all. I'm not sure what the second-most highly-regarded filmed opera is (maybe Powell & Pressburger's 1951 The Tales of Hoffman; maybe Joseph Losey's 1979 Don Giovanni; maybe Francesco Rosi's 1984 Carmen), but I know it has been seen by a fraction as many people as the Bergman film.

The good news is that The Magic Flute is certainly good enough to justify that lofty status; I certainly haven't seen all the candidates for the title, but I do happen to agree with the consensus. This is the best film adapted from an opera that I can name, though I phrase it that way deliberately. There are problems here, maybe even severe problems, depending on what, exactly you hope to get out of the film. It's a pretty fantastic production of the opera, but it's not really all that great a performance of the opera, for at least a couple of big reasons. First, Bergman decided to take advantage of the reduced requirements this project demanded to make some idiosyncratic casting choices. With all of the audio being miked for cinematic recording, there was no need for the kind of big, strong voices that can fill an opera house, and so instead of casting purely for singing ability, Bergman favored, somewhat vaguely, the energy the performers brought to their parts: warmth and passion and youthful enthusiasm. Given that he was making a movie, favoring movie-sized acting certainly makes sense, and viewing The Magic Flute as a movie, it's a choice that pays off. There's a lot of personality and small, rewarding comic beats, and subtle tenderness that the cast brings to the project. But close your eyes or watch from another room, and there's simply no arguing that this is an exceptional recording of the opera. It's at best nice, and at least once, not even that; the flashy showpiece aria from the second act, "Der Hölle Rache", surely the best-known piece from the opera, finds Birgit Nordin chirping the notes out with biting shrillness.

The other two reasons are maybe just plain nitpicking, but I don't think so. For one, owing to the avowed aims of the project (this was to be a widely-appealing production that families could watch together), Bergman didn't use the original German libretto from 1791, by Emanuel Schikaneder, but a 1968 Swedish translation by Alf Henrikson, which he then further amended himself. It is perhaps only the bigotry of familiarity with the German that leads me to say this, but Swedish just... isn't right. It is a springy language, with a built-in sing-songy musicality that is not found in the clattering consonants of German, and this difference certainly manifests in how the singers move through Mozart's music; it is comparatively weightless, fluid, and airy, with limited personality. The other thing is that The Magic Flute was the very first Swedish television production recorded in two-channel stereo, and while it's easy to laud the ambition, the execution is inconsistent: there are places where solo voices in particular have a distinctly tinny quality, like some of the lower frequencies got lost along the way.

All of which is to say, I would regret this being anyone's first and only exposure to The Magic Flute, one of the most readily pleasurable and joyful of the major operas (it was, after all, initially produced as a mass entertainment). It's simply nowhere close to the best-sounding incarnation of the material, although the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Eric Ericson, is in very fine form throughout. Still, this is all getting us back to that distinction I made earlier, between productions and performances, because for all that I might grouse about the latter (and my, I did grouse, didn't I? Certainly more than I intended to), Bergman's Magic Flute is a great joy to behold, an imagining of the material that is deeply and unapologetically theatrical from an irreducibly cinematic perspective.

The trick of the thing is that we are not, in the most literal sense, watching the events of The Magic Flute. We are watching a stage production of The Magic Flute, as put on in the Drottningholm Palace Theater in Stockholm, one of the only still-operating 18th Century theaters, with 18th Century machinery, in all of Europe. Or, rather, we're watching a minutely-detailed recreation of that theater, matched to exterior establishing shots of Drottningholm Palace and the surrounding grounds; it was concluded early that the theater itself was too fragile to withstand the activity of an entire film crew. But Bergman had his dream, extending back to his adolescence as a theater-besotted kid, of a production of The Magic Flute in properly old surroundings, and so we get that immaculate set, and the very detailed and rigorously period-correct staging effects build according to only what could be achieved in 1791; indeed, the staging was directly based on what we know of the opera's premier production at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna.

We have a little bit of that, then: Bergman, the big ol' theater nerd, getting to do his dream production of an opera that had struck him at an impressionable age - getting to do an opera at all, a theatrical form that had largely eluded him till that point (as far as I can tell, the only "real" opera he'd directed onstage by this point was Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, in 1961; he also had staged Weill's The Threepenny Opera in 1950 and Lehár's The Merry Widow in 1954). This Magic Flute is the unmistakable product of a man who was deeply fascinated by the traditional mechanics of stage spectacle. The film lays these mechanics bare, making sure that we notice the wires holding the titular flute as it flies around, taking us backstage to watch ropes being pulled and effects being generated. But it also invites us to give into the pleasure of the spectacle; never to "believe" it, because it is some of the most transparently faked stuff you will ever see in a sound film. But to make the choice to believe in it, shall we say.

This gets to the heart of what makes The Magic Flute difficult to get a handle on. It exists on three levels: the onstage action, the backstage action, and the audience, which we meet in the form of a montage of faces quickly cut to the opera's overture, and generally return to only in the form of a young girl (Helene Friberg), whose dreamy but rapt gaze and big smile serve as the anchor for the entire 135-minute run of the film. She is, in a way, the film's protagonist: if the idea behind this production is to present opera as something accessible and intimate and enjoyable, the girl's unchecked emotional reactions and visible enthusiasm (which, it should be pointed out, have been constructed entirely by Siv Lundgren and Bergman in the editing room) are our guide through that process, watching as she grows more and more invested in the unmistakably goofy fantasy happenings of the story. We would do well to never forget that Bergman was a theater director first, of cinema second; he never blurred those lines more aggressively or successfully than in The Magic Flute, and it's very clear that this project was his attempt to capture in cinematic terms the unique power of live theater, and the relationship forged between actors and audience, and even the way that there's something real about the tactility of the very obviously faked sets that gives them richness and authenticity not found in more "realistic" fantasy worlds.

This love of theater qua theater informs both of the other levels of the film: the action of The Magic Flute itself, and all the busy activity that go into putting on a performance of The Magic Flute. The latter is actually where much of my favorite moments in the film are found: the Queen of the Night (Nordin) studying the score for her next show while mechanically puffing away on a cigarette directly underneath a sign announcing, in several languages (but not Swedish), that no smoking is allowed; Pamina (Irma Urrila) lazily beating Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) at chess; actors peering through the curtain at the audience during the intermission; Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) bolting awake from a nap, racing through the backstage area, and having a pan pipe pressed into his hand just in time for him to play his first trill of notes. At times during the performance of the opera, the camera cuts to an angle that reveals people clustered in the wings, waiting for their cue or raptly listening the music, a nice little grace note that ties in with the shots of the girls of the audience to remind us that this is, after all, meant to be fun to listen to and watch. The whole thing is one of Bergman's finest tributes to the world of theater in his entire film canon, shaggy and casual in its snapshot of humans milling about doing their jobs and being normal people.

And I suppose I really ought to get to the staging of The Magic Flute, since it takes up something like 95% of the movie's running time, and even with the layers of artifice, we're still mostly hear to listen to Mozart's music and watch Schikaneder's characters learn the very on-the-nose moral lessons of the piece (which, in this production, have their directness turned into a playful joke, as the actors stare directly into the camera while the sing the messages, which are written on cards they're holding. Every production I've seen of the opera also uses direct address in these moments; I presume it is the standard approach). It is an extremely delightful production, I am happy to say, notwithstanding my indifference or dislike of pretty much every single vocal performance other than Hagegård's. The focus on re-creating 18th Century staging practices pays off wonderfully: the flats that stand in for most of the locations have yellowing, antiquated look that is very well-served by Sven Nykvist's 16mm cinematography, which embraces earthtones and browns to make the theatrical environment, both onstage and off, glow with cozy warmth and a dusky, nostalgic mood. And since the whole movie is basically an unbilled exercise in nostalgia for Bergman, that mood (which makes the whole film feel a little like a faded postcard) is more than welcome.

Also, while the singing suffers for the casting, the acting doesn't - and that, as much as anything, is what makes this Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute and not just a detailed celebration of 18th Century stagecraft. It is a character-driven operatic production, something that strikes me as frankly rather bizarre; in all my years of seeing opera, I don't know that I ever once left feeling jazzed up by the psychological journeys I just saw. The spectacle, for sure; the skill of the singers, absolutely; often the robust emotions; sometimes even the story. But never once the characters. And this is what Bergman does, using the tight close-ups that had served him so well and made his two previous filmed projects, Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage, such painfully intense snapshots of desperation, suffering, and inexpressible emotional upheaval. This is not the bleak psychological tragedy version of The Magic Flute, God knows; it is a lark and a fantasy, lighter in tone even than some live productions I've of seen of the opera that lean hard into the Masonic moral philosophy of the second act (Bergman's version nods in this direction by making Tamino and Pamina's trials the only "cinematic" part of the film, transitioning through editing to a lightly surreal space that couldn't exist onstage). It feels, as much as anything, like the director's reward to himself; having gotten through those deep, dark wallows in human misery, he is making a bubbly fairy tale and keeping it playful.

Still, he has thought about the character dynamics a great deal, leading to his one narrative change to the libretto - Pamina is here Sarastro's (Ulrik Cold) daughter, making Sarastro and the Queen of the Night a divorced couple; this was based in a misunderstanding the director made when he was a child. And it works awfully well here, especially late in the second act, when the Queen and her soldiers are amassed across from Sarastro and his councilors, and Nordin's look of hurt and anguish is very clearly the wounded loneliness of a woman who has lost love, not the fury of a being of cosmic evil squaring off against her spiritual opposite number. Even when Bergman isn't changing character relationships, though, he's thinking about how these people feel, using some of his characteristic close-up two shots to put multiple faces in the frame looking off camera, frequently right into the camera - this films uses a tremendous amount of direct address. And other than the jokey scenes where the singers are reading us the lessons, all of this direct address serves one purpose: to put is in direct contact with the emotions of the characters. As little interest as I have in Köstlinger and Urrila as singers, they're both doing quite a lot to give Tamino and Pamina more depth than just being the banal romantic leads of a morality play, which is honestly what I've always thought of, even in my favorite productions; Urrila, in particular, is great in the moments when she has to play Pamina's torn loyalties between her mother's cruelty and the love Sarastro shows her - her gutted, scared reactions during the Queen's second aria, captured in cold blue lighting that removes all the comforting warmth of the rest of the movie, are so good that I can overlook the shrieking mess Nordin is making of the singing.

That intimacy with the characters is the place where Bergman's Magic Flute best functions as a cinematic analogue to theater, rather than a cinematic recording of theater. For an electrifying intimacy between actors and audiences is, after all, the one thing that live theater has that film cannot have; the keen sense of being in a shared physical space, and the immediate access to the mood and vibe of the actor that provides. In turn, the one thing that film has that theater cannot is, of course, the close-up: turning an actor's face into a canvas the size of a building, and studying it with care and fascination and empathy. Bergman has neatly transmuted one into the other; paradoxically, he has completely re-imagined The Magic Flute as a cinematic work, despite how blatantly theatrical it is in virtually every imaginable respect. The result is an unmixed triumph: a joy to watch, rare enough for this filmmaker, and the single best embodiment of his shared love for both of his chosen artforms, the underappreciated point at which an under-examined tension in his career between theater and cinema is most thrillingly resolved. This is sometimes regarded as a curiosity or trivia, even if it is a very pleasurable curiosity; I would, one the contrary, consider it one of the key works in unpacking Bergman's entire aesthetic worldview.