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Opera on DVD: Branagh's 'Magic Flute'

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Mozart, The Magic Flute, J. Kaiser, A. Carson, R. Pape, L. Petrova (film directed by K. Branagh), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, J. Conlon

(released on June 11, 2013)
Idéale Audience REVA1047 | 134'
Attentive readers may recall me mentioning a new film version of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, directed by Kenneth Branagh, back in 2006 when it was first seen in limited release (in Canada, France, and a few other places). I had long assumed that the movie was going nowhere in the United States, but a DVD of the film arrived in the mail recently, in advance of a special screening scheduled for this Sunday at participating theaters. That screening will be introduced by a live Q&A session with Branagh, and later in the week the DVD will be released for sale in this country. (No theater in Washington is showing the screening on June 9 -- the nearest is in Delaware -- but the West End Cinema is supposedly showing the film on June July 7 and 12.)

Branagh used an English translation made by Stephen Fry, which updates the story to the trenches of World War I. This makes more sense than may seem likely, but anyone looking for a traditional performance on DVD will be disappointed. James Conlon conducted the studio recording that provides the soundtrack, with the fine Chamber Orchestra of Europe, a clean and delightful performance. The vocal cast varies widely, topped by tenor Joseph Kaiser in superlative form as Tamino and seconded by René Pape as his usual excellent Sarastro, just in oddly accented English. Although the Queen of the Night of Lyubov Petrova is quite fine, if slightly shrill, with Pamina (pretty but not always accurate Amy Carson), the Three Ladies, Papageno (rough-hewn Benjamin Jay Davis), and Papagena (Silvia Moi), there is the sense of casting more for looks and acting than for singing, which is important after all in this kind of film-hybrid project. Tom Randle makes a slimy Monostatos, and the three boys (William Dutton, Luke Lampard, and Jamie Manton) are adorable in their small soldier outfits.

The transposition to 1918 is an ingenious one, a time when devastating warfare had transformed the countryside of northern France into a moonscape, munitions-blasted hell, but also a time when the yearning for peace, an end to the war, was strong. The film's opening sequence shows the preparations for a British assault, the famous Allegro contrapuntal section of the overture accompanying furious activity, even a full marching orchestra that intones the mystical three chords. Tamino, a British officer, is wounded and incapacitated by gas -- a fiery, smoky substitute for the dragon in the libretto. He is rescued by the Three Ladies, who appear first as buxom nurses in nuns' habits, and awakens in a sort of dream world. Papageno features as a soldier who provides gas-detecting birds in the trenches; the Queen of the Night appears on a rolling tank, of course; René Pape also sings the role of the Speaker of the Temple, who first greets Tamino at the door of some sort of outpost for the German forces, a sort of hospital for the wounded, with Sarastro as head surgeon. What Branagh does very well is to evoke the fairy tale spirit of the story, accomplished here with some head-spinning and whimsical CGI effects, a realm of magical realism that opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities for opera. The moral messages dotted throughout the opera are beautifully captured: the best example, Papageno's lesson about not telling lies, is played out in the famous Christmas Eve during which German and British soldiers came together in No Man's Land, an episode that provides a convenient excuse for the gifts of magic flute and bells to Tamino and Papageno. Some parts of the film are probably not appropriate for younger audiences, one of several reasons why Ingmar Bergman's film version (see brief review here) remains superior.

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