The Magic Flute

Revolver Entertainment
Kenneth Branagh/United Kingdom-France 2007

Who is the intended audience for a filmed opera not sung in the original language? Opera purists are notoriously insistent that any libretto be performed only in the original language – so, as Mozart wrote in German, this English-language film is not for them. Opera fanatics go see different performances of shows so they can compare nuances of different performers’ interpretations; so this film, with its necessary focus on one performance, isn’t really for them. But as an introduction to opera, it’s hard to see how Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute could be better. He’s opening Mozart to a wider audience as he has famously done with Shakespeare.

Branagh’s bravado and commitment to “difficult” adaptations have always appealed, as has his insistence that his casts be multi-ethnic, down to the extras. Remember when casting Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing was considered daring? From Henry V onwards, he single-handedly opened up Shakespearean adaptations as a valid choice for directors like Mel Gibson, Julie Taymor and Baz Luhrmann. And he has done all this without forgetting how to act, whether in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets or Dead Again. Remarkably, The Magic Flute is the third movie out this year which he directed, after As You Like It and the remake of Sleuth. There’s no risk of Branagh running out of steam.

This ability to pile up idea after idea on-screen is essential for The Magic Flute, which premiered in Vienna in 1791 and seems to have set the standard for ridiculous plots, preposterous coincidences, a swarming cast and set pieces veering between moving and laughable. To sum up: Pamina (Amy Carson, in her professional debut), the daughter of the Queen of the Night (Lyubov Petrova), is being held in her enemy Sarastro’s (René Pape) castle. The Queen’s ladies (Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan, and Kim-Marie Woodhouse) find Tomino (Joseph Kaiser) unconscious and bring him to their Queen, who shows him with a picture of Pamina, with which he falls instantly in love and sets off to rescue. Dizzy yet?

Branagh simplifies the setting by moving the action to the first World War, with a basic costuming color scheme (red vs. blue) very helpful in telling everyone apart. The wartime setting also makes elements of the premise more believable. For example, Sarastro is in charge of a refugee camp, instead of a feudal lord; Tomino is found unconscious after an attack of mustard gas in the trenches, instead of fainting after fighting off a snake; and the Queen’s ladies now appear disguised as nurses, drivers and nuns.

Carson features in two of the most striking shots – one in which she is tied to a burning windmill and another in which she rides a white horse through gunfire in no-man’s-land. But an attempt to give these stunning shots epic scope is hampered by clunky and overlong use of CGI. An early, multi-minute-long traveling shot of a butterfly flitting over a battlefield under air attack is only one of many which loses significance due to its obvious fakery. We should be gasping in awe at the fantastic world production designer Tim Harvey and director of photography Roger Lanser have created, instead of creating a drinking game where one must spot where the live-action and CGI join.

Fortunately the singing is uniformly amazing. Branagh and his casting director, Sarah Playfair have picked the cream of global operatic talent (the main cast of ten come from seven different countries) to provide a stunning soundtrack. Stephen Fry, Britain’s pet intellectual, translated the libretto into English; I can’t say how close it is to the original, but mostly it flows.

The Magic Flute is an enjoyable entry into opera and will definitely be regularly shown in high schools once it comes out on DVD. It will be interesting to see if this paves the way for more films of opera’s back catalog. If anyone could open that door, Branagh’s the man.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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