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.
Filed under: Review