Amy Carson and Joseph Kaiser in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mozart's "The Magic Flute"
Amy Carson and Joseph Kaiser as Pamina and Tamino

Originally released in Europe beginning in 2006 in conjunction with Mozart’s 250th birthday, Kenneth Branagh’s lively and visually imaginative adaptation of the composer’s operetta The Magic Flute is just now getting an official release in the United States and it was worth the wait. Branagh enlisted Stephen Fry to redo Emanuel Schikaneder’s German libretto in English and to update the setting to WWI, but Mozart’s original music survives completely intact and is capably interpreted by The Chamber Orchestra of Europe. I don’t know how well hardcore opera snobs will take to the changes, but it strikes me as an excellent introduction for the casually curious.

Though the setting has changed and the story has been trimmed of its Masonic influences, it still follows Tamino and his comic companion Papageno as they first attempt to rescue the daughter of the Queen of the Night, then undergo a series of trials to win her love and bring peace to the land. Thematically, I haven’t really decided how the story is made more relevant with the new setting, but it gives Branagh the chance to play with some terrific war/peace imagery. The look of the picture has a stylized, artificial quality hearkening back to its staged roots, but Branagh judiciously employs CGI to broaden the canvas and lend it more of an epic feeling befitting its new cinematic home.

If nothing else, Branagh has the good sense when to stay out of the way of his material – a lesson Tom Hooper surely could’ve taken to heart before embarking on his stillborn vision of Les Miserables. At all times, Branagh lets the music stand front and center. The visuals are complementary rather than spotlight stealing. Unlike Hooper, Branagh never tries to outsmart his source and he has the wisdom to cast people known for their singing and not for their celebrity.  The Magic Flute may have gotten a quicker US release and more attention overall had Branagh caved in and gone for stunt casting (Vanessa Hudgens as Pamina!), but this way he’s got something that will last beyond mere fad and can take its place comfortably beside Ingmar Bergman’s 1970s TV adaptation.

While I have a familiarity with Mozart that goes a little below the surface, I’m not at all an opera guy so I can’t say how this adaptation holds up to a traditionally mounted stage performance, but I do know it holds its own cinematically and ought to be a nice appreciation of and/or entry point to one of Western culture’s great artists.

The Magic Flute hits theaters on June 9 (find theaters here) and the DVD will be available from Amazon here.

3 Responses to “The Magic Flute”

  1. I absolutely adore Mozart and THE MAGIC FLUTE, and over the years have seen a number of productions including ones staged at the Met and the City Opera. I am not sure how or why I am not familiar with this imminent opening, but I thank you kindly for posting it here, and in the manner of an excellent review to boot! The score of course is one of the great musical treasures, and Branagh has a way with bringing classical material to formidable heights as he has shown with Shakespeare. Not sure what you are saying with that May 9th link, as we are weeks past that and I have not seen the NYC opening. But the DVD release is a very fine back up!

  2. Well, I consider myself a hardcore opera fan so to answer your question Craig I do think that both Frye and Branagh did a fabulous, extraordinary job in translating Mozart and Schikaneder employing the phantasmogoric playbook of Julie Taymor. Yes the Masonic context was cut, but Mozart’s glorious score is intact and listening to the great orchestration and sublime vocals I was elevated to emotional heights, while finding yet another reason to find this masterpiece as one of the great accomplishments of western culture. I am close to a five star rating myself, but for now will settle on 4.5. I was ravished and exhilarated this morning at the Chelsea Cinemas on 23rd Street in Manhattan (sadly though only about 26-27 people in the theater, rather odd in view of NYC’s rich opera tradition), and I must thank you for making my day, my week, my month with this wondrous heads-up. I stand by my originally comment. You have written a great review!

  3. That’s great news Sam. It’s enough to appeal to tourists like me, but to have it go over with those who are already familiar is terrific.

    So glad I could bring this to your attention and that it was a winner for you. So many years after the fact, I think it’s being released here partly as an afterthought and mostly in an attempt to advertise the US DVD release. It was not well advertised and indeed is only playing for a very short time. I imagine the US distributor picked it up pretty cheaply.

    At any rate, I’m glad a whole new audience has been opened up to it.

    By the way “May 9″ was a typo. I meant “June 9″ and have corrected.

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