“The Magic Flute” is one of the most familiar and best-loved operas in the world, but barring Mozart and opera enthusiasts, how many can claim to have sat through the whole thing and er, understood it all?
For philistines like myself, Kenneth Branagh’s screen rendition is a godsend — frisky, rapid-fire paced and just plain fun. It has a rock-concert feel to it that echoes the original spirit of Mozart’s most fantastical work.
Branagh, who swims with ease in the two mediums of stage and film (acting as well as directing), has created a big-scale movie opera that brings together the best of both worlds. Moving the setting from ancient Egypt to the trenches of World War I, Branagh brought in British playwright/actor Stephen Fry to write the lyrics for the librettos, and the effect is contemporary without being too modern.
The opening scenes are breathtaking in scale: that soaring “Magic Flute” overture is set to a scene at the frontline where cannons open fire and soldiers advance with guns and bayonets. The whole sequence is shot with one camera slowly circling the battlefield like a low-flying bird.
There’s no break in the frames — the action matches the music beat for beat and note for note, and there’s a wonderfully tense, mounting expectation usually associated with watching something live, here and now.
The performers are all from the opera world, unfamiliar to moviegoers but thoroughly engaging. Especially a delight to watch (and listen to) is tenor singer Joseph Kaiser as Tamino, who appears here as a young, hunky soldier saved from the perils of poisonous gas by three, lusty army nurses (Teuta Koco, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse) who are actually fairy creatures in disguise, in servitude to the Queen of the Night (Lubov Petrova). They hope to monopolize and seduce Tamino (in none too subtle ways), but the queen issues an order for Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina (Amy Carson), now in the clutches of evil cult master Sarastro (Rene Pape). Tamino takes one look at Pamina’s portrait photo and falls in love, whereupon he swears to restore her to her mother and her rightful royal place. The queen presents him with a magic flute for his trouble, and Tamino takes off on his mission, aided by three boys who act as a kind of advisory Greek chorus.
Meanwhile, soldier-cum-birdkeeper Papageno (he keeps canaries to detect the presence of poison gas) has also been dispatched by the queen on the same mission, and he in turn has received a magic chime. When they get to Sarastro’s headquarters, they find that the supposed evil-doer is actually a hippylike activist who only wishes for all the fighting to stop so he can turn the trenches into an “oasis and paradise on Earth.” Backing him up are his followers: hordes of civilians that march behind him and call for peace.
Convinced of Sarastro’s sincerity, Tamino and Papageno decide to switch sides and join his ranks. Pamina, who also agrees with Sarastro’s politics, declares her undying love. Seeing all her plans spoiled and betrayed by her daughter, the queen swears vengeance. A particularly harrowing sequence is the lung-bursting, high-soprano aria (one of the highlight tunes of the opera) sung by the queen: She accuses her daughter of every sin, renounces all maternal bonds and swears they are enemies forever. This, while having her terrified daughter strapped to a windmill-like contraption.
Branagh marshals the forces of current-day movie-tech to enhance the fantasy feel, along with much wire-suspension action out of Chinese action-flick choreography (Ah, the ghost of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” lurks!).
The result is a spectacle of color, music and dance that re-enacts all the passion of opera with an immediacy that only film can create. Above all, you really understand what’s going on. Not that this “Magic Flute” is a kind of idiot-proof movie version of a sacred opera; rather, you come away with a heightened sense of awareness and deep appreciation at getting to see high art (and quite expensive art too) brilliantly translated into an accessible medium.
Mozart penned “The Magic Flute” in 1791, in the final year of his 36-year life. This, the last of his operas, was a departure from the big-budget productions he had been hired to write for the straight-laced Austrian emperor and, because of it, he apparently let rip with obscenities in the dialogue, sexual innuendos galore, as well as going overboard with the frivolity. He was writing a crowd-pleaser and by all accounts wanted to please himself as well. Because the project was so close to his heart, he was very hands-on during the rehearsals and performances, often pulling pranks when conducting the music and pissing off the performers.
Branagh does tone down the farce and brings in some politics. Throughout, his rendition is defined by a plea for peace, but not in a preachy, highbrow kind of way. Snobbishness has no place in “The Magic Flute,” then or now: It’s pure entertainment, meant to take you out of yourself, forget the world’s woes, and immerse yourself in the divine magic of the music.