June 9 Opera in film: The Magic Flute

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Kenneth Branagh’s ‘The Magic Flute’ works its magic on the eyes and ears

Now headed to theaters across the USA for the first time, ‘The Magic Flute’ is a theatrical and vocal success

By David Abrams

I’m not especially fond of operas on film or other visual media unless shot live and sung in the language originally intended.  Mostly, I find it difficult to tolerate lip-synching.  Yet somehow I remain curiously enamored with Kenneth Branagh’s fantasy-like 2006 film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute — lip-synched to a new libretto set in English.

For starters, this daring reworking of Die Zauberflöte, which plays on the big screen in 150 theaters across the USA Sunday, June 9 (Encore presentation June 11), is original, clever, well acted and visually engaging.  And while not opulent in the sense of a Franco Zeffirelli operatic extravaganza, Branagh’s production is imaginative, tasteful and thought-provoking.  Best of all, the performance — led by the magnificent German bass, René Pape — stands out as a richly rewarding listening experience.

Whatever Branagh had in mind when transposing the setting of the 1791 Singspiel to World War I, he wisely left Mozart’s music (recorded separately under the direction of James Conlon) intact.  And Conlon’s preference for quick tempos and clean and precise orchestral accompaniments, provided by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, was invigorating.

Still, it’s by no means easy to categorize Branagh’s The Magic Flute.  The director-actor of such Shakespearean masterpieces as Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing entered the world of opera with no experience whatsoever and forged an effort that appeared to be neither an opera staged for the screen nor a film whose storyline uses an opera as its musical background.

In the end, The Magic Flute is a hybrid fantasy-adventure story — just like the Mozart-Schikaneder original.

And while Branagh’s updated storyline may be completely devoid of the mystical bonds and symbolic numerology of Freemasonry that permeate the original libretto, Stephen Fry’s artful English revision maintains both the spirit and the dramatic integrity of the phantasmagorical tale and its underlying focus on spiritual delivery through trial by fire and water.

As the overture begins, the action opens with British troops in the front trenches of a battlefield preparing to charge enemy positions.  But this storyline transcends borders (one can’t even be sure the action takes place in France) and leaves the “enemy” faceless.  Throughout the film we see the carnage, the refugees and the pain and suffering — but never actually see anything even remotely resembling a German soldier.  The enemy is unmasked only late in the film, and then — surprise: It’s the Queen of the Night leading the forces of aggression.

Of course, evil is evil — whether generated by the German High Command or a wicked coloratura soprano.  And Branagh’s anti-war sentiments that permeate this production, while delivered gently and with restraint, pack an emotional wallop.

Carved on the wall of the castle that serves as a Red Cross hospital are the words Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — an ancient Roman battle cry (“It is sweet and right to die for your country”) used as the title of a poem by the great WWI British poet-soldier Wilfred Owen, whose disturbing and painful references to the horrors of war are immortalized in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  Later on, Sarastro sings his mighty O Isis und Osiris standing before a colossal wall of remembrance at a multinational graveyard, where the names (and the ages) of countless fallen soldiers are carved indelibly into the stone.  The wide variety of languages, including English, Hebrew, Arab, Russian and Chinese, serve as a reminder that suffering and the consequences of war know no borders.

To his credit, Branagh never appears preachy.  His film is not about protest or indoctrination; it’s a love story that pauses from time to time for reflection and meaning.  Branagh invites the viewer into his world but doesn’t try to lead them to his conclusions.  And it’s this practice of understatement that gives the production its strength and depth.

Even had it not been for the thoughtful dramatic touches, this production would stand tall solely on the merit of its quality of musical performance.  The soundtrack to this film is competitive with the best performances of this work out there. (Well, at least the ones in English.)

pape_flute.jpg_1As Sarastro, René Pape all but steals the show.  He’s a fine actor, and his sumptuous lyric bass (which I well remember from his Gurnemanz at the Met’s recent production of Parsifal) has never sounded better.  His deep pedal tones in In diesem heil’gen Hallen, assuring Tamino that things between Pamina and her mother will be all right if he perseveres and completes the trial, are alone worth the price of admission.   Give credit to Pape for working with a professional lip-synching coach (now there’s a career worth looking into) — just so he wouldn’t look foolish “singing” his arias.

Joseph Kaiser as the brave and duty-bound Captain Tamino (we first see the name on his dog tags after being knocked unconscious during battle) sings with a delicate, easy-going tenor that is consistently pleasing to the ear.  His signature aria Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, sung while he adorns the photograph of the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, was quite lovely — although I would have preferred a bit more depth and color to his voice in that aria.  (In a clever directorial move, Pamina’s image in the photo comes to life in a ballroom dance routine.)

Benjamin Jay Davis was throughly appealing as the birdman, Papageno.  (In Branagh’s adaptation, Papageno is on “pigeon duty,” carrying birds into the trenches testing for poison gas.)  Davis’s lyric baritone is flexible and supple in its upper register, giving him many characteristics of a tenor.  I particularly enjoyed his delightful aria, Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, sung as he imagines life not only with birds — but with the bees, as well.  In the film this aria is delightfully staged as a fantasy, with bird-women dancing in cages and flying provocatively through the air.

As the wily Queen of the Night, the seasoned Russian coloratura soprano Lyubov Petrova forged an outstanding villain who all but spit bullets when encouraging her daughter to kill Sarastro.  The archetypical drama queen makes her initial appearance in this film riding atop a tank — one of Branagh’s unforgettable visual touches.

Petrova possesses a strong and mighty vocal presence that added credence to her nefarious character.  But her signature aria Der Hölle Rasche, though a sound to behold, was hardly a sight to behold — as the close-ups of her mouth during the lip-synched high F passages looked like something out of a Monty Python farce.

The one singer who did not work out well in this production is Amy Carson, who was simply vocally miscast as Pamina.

Fresh out of college when she got the part, and with no solo professional singing experience under her belt, Carson landed the part because the opera-inexperienced casting director did not realize that the role of Pamina requires the gravitas of a lyric soprano, not the light and sweet soubrette character of Carson’s vocal timbre — better suited perhaps to a Zerlina (Don Giovanni) or Despina (Cosi fan tutte).

Carson’s voice is quite lovely, actually.  It’s just the wrong voice for the part.  The disparity is especially evident in her character’s defining aria, Ach ich fühl’s, where she contemplates suicide having mistaken Tamino’s vow of silence for indifference towards her affections.  This is an aria that requires meat and potatoes, not meringue.

The vocal ensemble numbers were especially attractive, with a first-rate ensemble of singers playing the Three Ladies (or nurses, in this production), comprising Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan and Kim-Marie Woodhouse.  The Three Boys (William Dutton, Luke Lampard and Jamie Manton) sounded absolutely wonderful — and sang in-tune.

The chorus (Choir Apollo Voices) was excellent throughout the production, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe proved thoroughly up to task during Conlon’s spirited tempos.

Stephen Fry’s clever and imaginative lyrics will likely put a smile on your face.  When the love-struck, bird-loving couple Papageno and Papagena sing about producing offspring, Fry translates Schikaneder’s three-syllabled Kinderlein as chicks inside.  Papageno’s opening aria morphs to The birdman’s work is never done, from the crack of dawn to set of sun.

Branagh’s production team, together with Conlon’s musical team, produced more magic in this production than pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  Indeed, they pulled a treasure chest from this Magic Flute.

Details Box:
What: Mozart’s The Magic Flute, film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh
Language: English
Orchestra: James Conlon conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Where: 150 theaters across the USA, http://www.emergingpictures.com/titles/the-magic-flute-a-film-by-kenneth-branagh/
Date of US broadcast: June 9, 2013; USA Encore broadcast June 11, 2013
Time of performance: 2 hours and 14 minutes
To order the DVD: http://www.amazon.com/The-Magic-Flute-Joseph-Kaiser/dp/B00A50PBEA