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For your consideration: Kenneth Branagh’s version of “The Magic Flute” finally available on DVD in the US

Kenneth Branagh filmed his cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the middle of the last decade as part of the 250th Anniversary celebrations for that opera.  It was screened at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals in 2006; however, it was not shown in United States theaters nor was it released on DVDs that were coded for play in this country.  Mark Swed managed to get a hold of a copy two years later and gave it strong marks in his Los Angeles Times review.

Now, you can finally judge for yourself.

Revolver Entertainment is releasing the DVD for US distribution beginning today.  Additionally, they began showing the film (in conjunction with Emerging Pictures) in very limited national theatrical distribution this past Sunday (click HERE for future showings at locations nationwide).

I couldn’t make one of the Sunday theatrical showings, but I did get a chance to preview the DVD, and found it to be quite likable.  It is a charming and stylish production, with solid musical chops anchored by the superb conducting of James Conlon and featuring an attractive and talented cast.

Sir Kenneth resets the action to a battlefield consciously evocative of World War One.  In the process he did away with much of the Masonic and Enlightenment-era symbolism Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder injected into story, replacing it with a more-or-less straightforward anti-war sentiment:  Sarastro isn’t quite hoping for light to triumph over darkness, he just wants world peace.

There are a few moments where the attempts at timeless social commentary become tedious:  the scene at the cemetery, with the multi-lingual headstones and extended pull back shot, is the most heavy-handed example, while the use of the Latin inscription “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” on the side of Sarastro’s castle is at least a little more obscure.  I tried not to read anything into the choice of colors for the two armies — could Sarastro’s triumphant “red” troops represent Socialism/Communism as a cause for good? — but others might be inclined to see some symbolism there too.

More often, though, the historical context works well.  Mr. Branagh strikes the right balance between the drama, comedy, and fantasy.  The requisite adjustments in plot and character caused by the WWI setting are usually clever; just a few examples:

  • Tamino begins as an officer in the Queen of the Night’s blue army, and the dragon that chases him is now a seething cloud of nerve gas.
  • Papageno is an aw-shucks American with a Midwestern accent, and instead of being a birdcatcher, he carries pigeons in cages to help detect the presence of nerve gas.
  • The Queen of the Night makes her grand entrance standing defiantly on top of a rumbling WWI-era tank.
  • The “trial by fire” required of Tamino and Pamina becomes the two of them crossing the no-man’s land between trenches while the enemy shouts “fire” and takes shots at them with rifles and artillery.

Just as important, Sir Kenneth uses to full effect the opportunities afforded to him by creating a purely cinematic film rather than modifying and recording an on-stage production.  The medium allows the action to be more intimate at some times and more grandly operatic at others.  Papageno’s day-dream sequence as he sings “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” becomes a surreal and silly change of pace.  Special effects are incorporated, but with welcome restraint.

Purists may scoff at these changes, and they are likely to be even more troubled by the use of an English adaptation of the libretto instead of the original German; however, Stephen Fry’s translation does a commendable job of remaining true to Schikaneder’s original storyline while also fitting in aspects specific to this revision.

Benjamin Jay Davis and Joseph Kaiser in Branagh's Magic Flute-Courtesy of Revolver Entertainment

Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis) and Tamino (Joseph Kaiser)

As the film’s director, Sir Kenneth kept final casting authority (in some cases vetoing recommendations made by Mr. Conlon), and as such, the performers were cast for how they looked more than how well they sang.  They certainly all look great.  Thankfully, they sound quite good too.

The young Canadian tenor, Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), and even younger British soprano, Amy Carson (Pamina), are a believable leading couple, capable of portraying palpable emotion in their roles via both their acting and their singing.  Baritone Benjamin Jay Davis makes Papageno a nice comic foil without allowing him to become a buffoon.  René Pape is a stalwart yet sensitive Sarastro, offering the strongest singing of the entire cast in the process. Lyubov Petrova is a formidable Queen of the Night, tossing off her high Fs in “Der Hölle Rache” without trouble; with Sir Kenneth’s interpretive help, she makes the Queen a somewhat more tragic and sympathetic figure than she is often portrayed.   The rest of the cast is respectable in each of their roles.

Conductor James Conlon leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with the kind of spirit and transparency we in Southern California have been privileged to repeatedly experience during his tenure as Music Director of Los Angeles Opera.  He even gets a brief on-screen cameo portraying an officer in Sarastro’s red army.

The DVD itself is reasonably good.  The picture quality is vibrant for a non-Blu-Ray disc, and the sound resonant.  Along with the feature, the DVD contains cast and crew interviews, and a bonus featurette with quotes from Sir Kenneth and others.  I appreciated the choice between Dolby 5.1 and Dolby Stereo, though a DTS option would have been nice.  Much more disappointing was a complete lack of subtitles being available; since the opera is sung in English, it is usually easy enough to understand, but there are enough times when the pronunciation is unclear (this is an opera, after all) and a little help would have been preferred, even expected.

With the popularity of musicals on TV (Nashville much?) and especially of last year’s cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables, perhaps this version of The Magic Flute will catch on with a broader audience, though admittedly, this effort lacks the other’s star-power or spare-no-expense budget.

If you’re a fan of The Magic Flute and won’t get hung up on the change of setting or language, than you would certainly enjoy this rendition.  If you’re a Mozart, opera, or classical music fan in general, it’s definitely worth watching, though you will probably want to rent it first before you decide to plunk down the $$ to add it to your library permanently.

No matter what, thank goodness it’s finally available here in the U.S.


Photo credits:  courtesy of Revolver Entertainment

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